Domestic workers need protections

January 27, 2021 12:01 am

The sun rises over the Virginia Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Erica Sklar

Most workers in Virginia are protected from workplace discrimination. Yet, here in Virginia as many as 60,000 nannies, home attendants and house cleaners are at risk of losing their jobs based on race, religion or if they become pregnant. Furthermore, in the midst of a pandemic, our state laws also allow workers to be fired for speaking up if their employer doesn’t wear a mask or provide PPE.

Domestic workers have long been excluded from labor policy, a history directly tied to the legacy of slavery. The 1930s Fair Labor Standards Act ensured that most workers had access to things like overtime pay, minimum wage and a 40-hour work week, but in order for it to pass, Southern legislators in Congress demanded that domestic workers, who were mostly Black at the time, be excluded. Today, domestic workers remain a majority-women workforce who are predominantly Black, Hispanic and immigrant women. Unfortunately, this history of Jim Crow laws continues to prevent this workforce from receiving worker rights.

All over the country, states and cities have been righting this historic wrong by passing legislation giving domestic workers rights and protections. Last year, Virginia secured the first labor protections for domestic workers in the South by ensuring these women are included in the minimum wage. This legislative session, we have an opportunity in Virginia to become the first Southern state to advance domestic worker policy in the country with a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights (Senate Bill 1310). This legislation removes all exclusions for domestic workers to ensure they are included in all existing Virginia worker protections. 

Employers of domestic workers have a critical role to play in making this a reality. If you’ve ever hired a nanny, caregiver, house cleaner or anyone to help keep your household running, then you are an employer. The reality is that most workers should not technically be considered contractors if they are in long-term, individual relationships with the people who work in their homes. If workers aren’t being paid by a third-party company, the legal obligation falls on you — the person whose home it is. 

Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network, organizes employers who understand that their home is a workplace, and that it should be a fair one. Employing a nanny, house cleaner or home attendant is an intimate and interdependent relationship. Most of us hire people to do work in our homes because we need the support, and it is that support which makes the rest of our work possible. At Hand in Hand, we understand this as a core value, and recognize that is our responsibility to care for the domestic workers who care for us.

Hundreds of employers are continuing to pay domestic workers throughout the COVID-19 crisis, ensuring, for everyone’s safety, that their employees stay home. Many employers pay medical bills out of pocket for nannies or caregivers, both because they understand the financial implications of the loss of work and because they care about their employees. Others are nervous about liability; still others don’t pay at all — part of the reason that many thousands of domestic workers have been out of work for nearly 11 months now. 

Data collected by the National Domestic Workers Alliance reveals that more than 90 percent of Spanish-speaking domestic workers lost their job because of the pandemic. Nearly 75 percent of workers did not receive any compensation when their jobs were canceled and 45 percent of Black immigrant domestic workers had their hours and pay reduced. Approximately 78 percent of this workforce earned $300 or less in their best work week. This is significant since more than 3 in 4 workers said their income is the main income in their household. 

Passing policy in Virginia is crucial to making sure that domestic workers aren’t relying on luck to be safe from discrimination and to be eligible for compensation if they are injured on the job. Across the country, policies to keep workers safe — from physical harm and from discrimination — have been a standard for nearly 100 years. A house cleaner who works in the homes of multiple employers should not be excluded from these protections. In fact, someone who comes into your home to work is your employee, and you are responsible for their well-being in your home as their workplace. 

Without adequate policy, the livelihoods and safety of domestic workers is up to chance. It’s time to change that in Virginia, and make sure that all workers in the commonwealth have safe and dignified employment. 

Erica Sklar is the national organizer for Hand in Hand: the Domestic Employers Network. She lives in Richmond.

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