Domestic workers' unhappy Thanksgiving

States are slow to grant basic rights to those who care for other people's families

November 23, 2010|By Sonya Michel

As the heaping platters of turkey and stuffing make their rounds at your Thanksgiving table, think of the many people in Maryland and across the nation who will be spending their holiday in the kitchen — someone else's kitchen. The typical paid domestic worker is not only spending the holiday away from her own family but might not be receiving the minimum wage, much less overtime pay, to make up for it. The majority of American domestic employees — most of them women, many of them immigrants — work without the protection of basic labor laws."

In at least one state, however, things are beginning to change. On Monday (unfortunately, too late for this year's Thanksgiving), a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights goes into effect in New York, mandating an eight-hour day, minimum wage and paid overtime, along with 24 consecutive hours for rest each week, paid sick days, and paid annual vacation days for all full-time household employees. These provisions may seem like the bare minimum, but for the estimated 270,000 domestic workers to be covered, they represent a major step forward.

New York's law — the first such to be enacted at the state level — closely resembles one passed in Montgomery County in 2008. Momentum for that bill came from CASA de Maryland, an immigrants' rights organization that had begun campaigning to protect local domestic employees, a majority of whom are immigrants, four years earlier. At CASA's behest, the county commissioned a survey of working conditions for domestic employees, which found that nearly 60 percent "were expected to be constantly on call to serve the needs of their employers' families regardless of the needs of their own families," and 80 percent were regularly deprived of overtime pay.

In addition to mandating minimum wage and overtime pay, Montgomery County's Domestic Workers Bill of Rights specifies what type of living quarters employers must provide for live-in help and requires them to negotiate a written contract with anyone who works for them 20 hours per week or more. Penalties for noncompliance can go as high as $1,000.

When it was passed, County Executive Ike Leggett hailed the new law, stating that it is "only right that the county reach out to [domestic workers] to let them know that they too have rights that deserve to be respected." Despite the initial fanfare, however, implementation has gone slowly. This past summer, Cody Calamaio, a staff writer for the county's weekly newspaper, The Gazette, found that in the two years since passage "the county hasn't received any reports of malfeasance, let alone assessed any penalties."

One county official attributed this to the fact that a majority of the local domestic workers come from the Latino community, which does not "have a long history of trusting government." Although the bill protects all domestic employees in the county, regardless of immigration status, undocumented workers or those awaiting green cards may be reluctant to come forward with complaints.

There are also legal technicalities. While contracts are mandated by the county, it is the state that must enforce them, and coordination with state agencies has proven difficult. Ashwini Jaisingh, a domestic worker organizer for CASA, told Ms. Calamaio, "What's the use of filling out a piece of paperwork that's going to sit in records when there are not enforcement mechanisms in place?"

Montgomery County deserves credit for pioneering on this issue, but its experience shows that passing laws to protect domestic workers is one thing; implementing them is another. The fact that the New York law was enacted at the state level eliminates one major hurdle, but there, as in Maryland, the immigration status of many home-based employees may constrain them from reporting abuses. By next Thanksgiving, we should have some indication of whether workers hidden in Empire State kitchens have begun to enjoy the same rights as other American workers. If the law works there, other states should follow suit.

Sonya Michel is director of United States Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. Her e-mail is sonya.michel@wilsoncenter.org.

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