Better Life Lab

In an Industry Where Abuse Is Hidden, Domestic Workers Set Sights on Federal Protections

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Jill Shenker.

For 20 years, Allison Julien commuted an hour across Brooklyn, New York, every morning to arrive at work by 8 a.m. In the early 1990s, her office was someone else’s house, where she cared for a family’s two toddlers. She immigrated from Barbados and came to the United States young and undocumented with few options for work. She got involved in domestic work through her family and friends working in the industry. “I didn’t choose my profession; my profession chose me,” Julien says.

Julien also didn’t choose to catch the flu from the toddlers. In order to heal herself, she needed to take a Thursday and Friday off work. Upset at her request, her employer raised Julien’s status as an undocumented immigrant. The implication was a threat to turn her in to authorities if she didn’t come to work, a common tactic used against vulnerable undocumented workers. Nevertheless, she continued as their nanny. “That for me was really a point of knowing that something more needed to be done. As an undocumented person who was providing the most important care for this couple’s children, I wasn’t even able to take time off after catching the flu from the kids I was caring for,” Julien says.

Had this happened today, Julien would’ve been able to claim her right to three paid days of rest without any backlash. That’s because of the rights guaranteed to her by the New York Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which was the first of its kind to pass in 2010 thanks to a campaign by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). Given the intimacy of their jobs, domestic workers are especially subject to exploitation by their employers. According to a 2012* NDWA survey, “The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work,” 36 percent of nannies contracted an illness while at work in the prior 12 months, and most don’t have access to sick days or rest time. Findings also show that 85 percent of undocumented domestic workers who encountered problems with their working conditions in the prior 12 months did not speak up because they feared their immigration status would be used against them like it was in Julien’s case. Moreover, their wages are stagnant despite the fact that the care economy is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy.

The NDWA, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary Tuesday, connects domestic workers together in an organization as close to a union as is possible in an industry where the usual rules don’t apply. It counts more than 20,000 individual members, including housekeepers, nannies, and caregivers for the elderly. In just 10 years, it has been able to provide them with rights like a minimum wage, job protection, sick days, rest time, and access to health care in eight states across the country.

In the isolating, private world of domestic work, where each worker is often left to her own devices if she encounters problems, there is no board of directors or human resources department to slap an abusive or disrespectful employer on the wrist.

Across the country in San Francisco, Enma Delgado ran into these problems and others. Delgado was born in El Salvador, and she crossed three borders to make it to the U.S. in 2003. She left three kids behind in El Salvador in order to provide for them with domestic work available in the U.S. In the interview for her first job as a nanny, her employers showed little appreciation of the job she was about to take. “You won’t have to do much work,” her future employers said. “You only have to carry them and give them a bath.” This initial misunderstanding of what it meant to be a nanny translated into low pay and disrespect.

Regardless of these attitudes about the nature of domestic work, and despite low pay, domestic workers describe the work as both physically and emotionally taxing. Maria Reyes, a 71-year-old Mexican immigrant, domestic worker, and veteran activist, says her work has always been emotional. “Thinking about a typical day in caring for a person or cleaning a home, I’ve always done this work with a lot of love. When I cared for an older person I did it with love and compassion, like my mom had cared for me.”

Julien, Delgado, and Reyes brought these experiences to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, where they try to raise general awareness of their job conditions and fight for better legal protections at the same time. The NDWA was founded in 2007 at the first U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta. Atlanta was the birthplace of domestic-worker organizing and home to the movement’s matriarch, Dorothy Bolden. Bolden founded the National Domestic Worker’s Union of America in 1968, and her legacy lives on today in each of the 60-plus organizations affiliated with the NDWA.

Historically, workplace protections for domestic workers have been sparse. For one, they were excluded from basic protections established by the Fair Labor Standards Act. During the civil rights movement, Bolden became a sounding board for these workers, most of whom, at the time, were black. Domestic work was largely seen as black women’s work until recently, when labor changes such as greater access to civil service jobs for black women led many black women out of domestic work and increased the demand for foreign-born domestic workers. Today, immigrant women of all races have filled these posts, but Bolden’s legacy remains in NDWA’s We Dream in Black campaign, which is specifically designed to amplify the voices of black female domestic workers. Julien now spearheads this campaign.

The passage of the first Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in New York in 2010 was only the beginning of the contemporary domestic workers movement launched through the formation of NDWA. Seven years and seven states later, NDWA bills of rights are gaining momentum. A part of their strategy has been educating lawmakers about domestic work to gain recognition. Delgado says NDWA has made itself known to legislators in California: “Now when they see the sea of red T-shirts come in, they know exactly who we are.” Since these laws passed, domestic workers like Delgado are empowered to enter in conversations with employers about their working conditions, because they’ve been armed with their rights. “Even if the laws exist on the books, if we don’t demand that they be enforced then it’s like they don’t exist at all,” Delgado said.

In certain respects, these bills are more progressive than existing U.S. labor laws protecting other kinds of workers. Marzena Zukowska, NDWA earned media strategist, points out, “One thing that’s quite noticeable is that the bills of rights in Illinois, New York, and California have a freedom from sexual harassment clause, which is important, because at the federal level many workers get excluded from sexual harassment claims because there’s a minimum number of employees that a workplace has to have.” That minimum number is 15 employees. The NDWA helps domestic workers circumvent these loopholes within existing labor laws.

Delgado, Reyes, and Julien all worked tirelessly as volunteer organizers to pass these bills of rights, and they’re hoping that can translate to an all-encompassing federal bill. Reyes says, “It’s a huge achievement that the NDWA passed the bills of rights in eight states, but the real dream is to do it in every state at the national level.” That seems like a pipe dream given our current administration’s agenda and especially their hostility to undocumented workers, who make up a huge portion of domestic workers today.

The biggest barrier domestic workers face today is fear. Undocumented domestic workers are afraid to ask for minimum wage or overtime pay, and some are even afraid to leave their employers’ homes for fear of detainment or deportation. Julien says, “Our organization is tied into the lives of immigrants, mainly immigrant women, who are at the margins of everything that’s coming down the pipeline of this new administration.” The Trump administration leaves even the most experienced and seasoned NDWA organizers asking, “What next?”

But on Tuesday, they’re celebrating their anniversary and the progress they’ve made nonetheless. Julien says, “We build this community so that when the ‘what next’ comes down the pipeline there’s a home for them to be a part of. We already know that these workers are resilient. Their resilience shapes the way that we change laws in this country.”

*Correction, Nov. 14, 2017: This post originally stated that the NDWA survey, “The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work,” was from 2016. The survey is actually from 2012.