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Domestic Workers in New York Win First-Ever Job Protections

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Troublemakers logo-blueDomestic workers in New York have won historic changes to the state’s labor law to include protections for their jobs. Final votes on Thursday ended weeks of wrangling between state Assembly and Senate leaders and Governor David Paterson, who said he would sign the bill.

The law guarantees domestic workers time-and-half pay for more than 40 hours and a day off each week, along with protection under worker compensation and anti-discrimination law and access to unemployment insurance. The compromise bill won’t include original demands for paid sick and vacation days and advance notice of termination. But three paid days off were granted after a year of service.

Domestic workers and advocates have been holding their breath since June 1, when 100 domestic workers and allies from around New York City traveled a well-worn path to Albany for a vote on the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The housekeepers and caregivers who tend to the children and homes of New York’s well-to-do had made this trip countless times in the last six years, coming face to face with lawmakers to campaign for basic protections on the job.

Promised votes that never materialized had disappointed them many times before. But on that night, after hours of worker testimonies and a few stories from state senators about the domestic work their mothers and grandmothers did, the Senate—at long last—voted 33 to 28 in favor of the bill.

“It was an incredible moment of validation,” said Priscilla Gonzalez, director of Domestic Workers United, the organization behind the bill. “We started six years ago by walking into legislators’ offices and educating them. Now we found ourselves witnessing senator after senator thanking these immigrant women of color who had been invisible for so long.”


The legislative victory in New York is a historic blow at domestic workers’ exclusion from federal labor protections. The legislation would be the first in the country to provide protections to domestic workers since the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 first excluded them.

The biggest stumbling block appeared to be outgoing Governor Paterson. While he reaffirmed the pledge of support he made for the bill on a radio show last year—acknowledging the historical exclusion of domestic and farm workers from labor law protections as racist—he approached the bill cautiously, at first issuing a statement denying he supported it. After the Senate and Assembly approved the compromise version Thursday, with three Republicans joining all 32 Democrats in the Senate, Paterson announced he would sign the bill.

The law also calls on the state’s Department of Labor to study the feasibility of collective bargaining for domestic workers and issue a report by November.

Domestic Workers United has much to celebrate in coming this far. DWU, founded in 2000, estimates that at least 200,000 people in the state—mostly immigrant women from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America—work in other people’s homes as housekeepers and live-in caregivers.

While some caregivers report decent working conditions with warm families and children they adore, others have to live with over-demanding bosses, and organizers have heard (and experienced) every horror story imaginable, from sexual assault to sewage-filled basement living conditions, abuse both physical and emotional—a litany of violations against basic human decency.

Even the not-so-bad situations can take a turn. Domestic workers report not being compensated for long trips, having to work while sick, and being let go without notice.

“A lot of times when you’re sick and can’t get up and go to work, you still get up and try to go, because you know you won’t get paid or they will replace you,” said Merilyn Blackett, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago with six years at DWU and nine years as a care provider for the elderly.

Arranging her own medical care has been difficult, too. Unable to get appointments during off hours, Blackett said she’d have to decide between getting paid or seeing her doctor.

Blackett and other determined workers met in 2004 to spell out what they wanted to see changed at work, giving birth to what would become the Bill of Rights.


Domestic workers planned daily events in front of the governor’s office the week of June 14 to insist he sign the bill. Organizers burned through call lists and invited out prominent friends like the feminist leader Gloria Steinem, friendly legislators, labor leaders, and other allies gained during a decade of organizing.

Gonzalez said she expected legislators to prepare a compromise between the two bills, but argued for the strongest possible provisions. “Sick days and holidays are things that domestic workers on their own would not be able to negotiate—the power balance with the employer is too great,” she said. “We’re not asking for anything more than anyone else gets—we’re asking to get onto equal footing with other workers.”

Not everyone’s in support. Comments on news articles online show that for some employers, the bill hits a raw nerve. Gonzalez said some lawmakers fear the precedent this bill would set for domestic workers in other states and other groups of excluded workers—like farm workers.

DWU offers them no illusions: with their allies, they intend to run with the precedent as far and fast as they can.


DWU’s work is being replicated in other states through the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an organization of worker centers, immigrant rights groups, and domestic worker cooperatives that grew up out of the 2007 U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta.

Blackett said when she first got involved in DWU, after a friend encouraged her to attend a monthly meeting, “we were just thinking about mobilizing the domestic workers in New York City.” After DWU members went to Atlanta, she realized there were many other domestic workers they could help if they prevailed at home.

Domestic workers and their allies in California and Colorado are drafting their own bills of rights to introduce in their state legislatures. Organizations from the Bay to LA are collaborating to introduce a bill next year. They’ve produced a detailed survey of conditions, won the support of the San Francisco City Council, and gained a hearing on domestic worker conditions with the state legislature’s labor committee.

At the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in June, the national alliance and a host of organizations planned a multi-year campaign to change federal labor law to cover all domestic and farm workers.

Originally published on Labor Notes.

About The Author: Tiffany Ten Eyck, a Michigan native, has worked with the Student/Farmworker Alliance and the successful Taco Bell Boycott campaign. A former SEIU intern, USAS activist, and anti-war agitator; she covers the UAW, farm workers, workers centers,  and building trades for Labor Notes.

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If Widely Adopted, Workplace Bill of Rights Would Dramatically Improve Our Economy

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*The following post originally appeared in Winning Workplaces on February 9, 2010 in support of our proposed Workplace Bill of Rights. Thanks to Mark and Winning Workplaces for their support!

The U.S. has survived and, most often during its 234-year history, thrived under a forward-thinking Bill of Rights.  Much more recently, innovative airline JetBlue has turned its industry on its ear and even inspired action by the White House through its Customer Bill of Rights – which, from a consumer’s point of view, is one of the few bright spots amidst a slew of disappointing developments like this one.

If the Bill of Rights concept works, why not apply it to the workplace culture? After all, research shows that more highly engaged employees result in stronger company earnings, and lead those firms to more resiliency in down economies like the one we’re in now.

That – along with fair treatment of, and an adequate living wage for, employees – is the idea behind Workplace Fairness’ proposed Workplace Bill of Rights.  The 9 “basic rights [they] believe every worker should be entitled to” that they spell out here are the basis of a petition in partnership with Change.org.  The signatures gathered will be presented to the Obama Administration, through which a best-case scenario would produce widespread adoption of the bill by employers.

The largest hurdle before this initiative is, of course, business owners’ uncertainty of the payoff of employee engagement, or of anything beyond what they’re already doing in a tough economy.  This is especially true of small businesses, which comprise the vast majority of employers and tend to be under-resourced versus their larger peers.

To help prove the point of my title for this post, and hopefully help overcome this hurdle, I’ve linked some of the 9 basic employee rights* Workplace Fairness is advocating to bottom line business results that Winning Workplaces has seen in our small business award honorees, and confirmed in workplace research by others – both of which I’ve blogged about previously:

• Employees should be treated with honesty and respect – Among our 2010 small business award applicants, employee activities designed to foster greater respect helped them grow 2009 revenues 12% over 2008, on average.
• Working full-time should guarantee a basic standard of living – Paying only 5% over the minimum wage saves a business almost $2,200 per employee in turnover costs.
• No working person should be without health insurance – An average increase in employer-paid employee medical premiums of 6.8% of our 2009 small business award finalists, over their 2008 counterparts, led to increases in employee tenure and year-over-year revenue growth, and a decrease in turnover.
• Employees should be able to leave a job with dignity – Our 2008 award winners’ universal adoption of retirement plans that match employee contributions at an average rate of 2.8% is linked to double-digit, year-over-year revenue growth and average per-employee revenue of over $200,000.
• There is more to life than work – We pointed to Talent Management’s citation of a Corporate Executive Board analysis which shows that strategies to promote work/life balance can raise workplace productivity by 21% and employee tenure by 33%.

The net impact of these business outcomes is stronger sales from a larger, more satisfied customer base, which adds up to job growth and ultimately a more robust economy over time.

If you see benefits for both employees and companies in WF’s Workplace Bill of Rights, you can help to advance it by signing their petition here (and voting /commenting at Change.org)

*Update: Workplace Fairness Executive Director Paula Brantner informed me that even though their list was promoted as having 9 employee rights, there are actually 10.  See toward the bottom of their petition, as well as the voting/comments page over at Change.org.

About the Author: Mark Harbeke ensures that content on Winning Workplaces’ website is up-to-date, accurate and engaging. He also writes and edits their monthly e-newsletter, Ideas, and provides graphic design and marketing support. His experience includes serving as editorial assistant for Meredith Corporation’s Midwest Living magazine title, publications editor for Visionation, Ltd., and proofreader for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. Mark holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Drake University. Winning Workplaces is a not-for-profit providing consulting, training and information to help small and midsize organizations create great workplaces. Too often, the information and resources needed to create a high-performance workplace are out of reach for all but the largest organizations. Winning Workplaces is changing that by offering employers affordable consulting, training and information.

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