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America’s Invisible Workers
On April 30, Hawaii became the second state, after New York, to pass a domestic workers' "bill of rights". Similar bills are in the pipeline in California, Oregon, Massachusetts, Texas, Ohio and Illinois. For many of the almost 2 million nannies, baby sitters, cleaning ladies and other domestic workers in the U.S. laboring behind closed doors in private homes the abuse and cruelties that they face would be intolerable to any other group of employees.
Stories such as the live-in nanny forced to sleep in a closet, and a housekeeper who was told to clean every bathroom tile with a toothpick are all too common and domestic worker face the prospect of sexual harassment, low wages and a lack of clear boundaries.
The number of domestic workers, a majority of whom are single mothers themselves, has been rising over the decades—and certainly career women will have trouble heeding Sheryl Sandberg's advice to "lean in" if they can't get help managing their households. Indeed, some experts claim that a nanny strike, for instance, would effectively shut down business in a city like New York.
Unfair pay may be even more common than sexual harassment among domestic workers. According to the groundbreaking 2012 report, "Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work," a mind boggling 67 percent of live-in workers are paid less than minimum wage.
Yet, 91 percent of domestic workers don't complain about poor working conditions, because they are afraid of being fired. Making matters worse, 36 percent of domestic workers are undocumented immigrants, so they are even less likely to take legal action.
Until recently, domestic workers had little choice but to keep quiet and carry on. Housekeepers, nannies and elder caregivers have been excluded from labor laws, dating back to Reconstruction, when southern states resisted regulation of newly emancipated blacks. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes minimum wage and overtime protections for most American workers, for example, does not apply to many caregivers, and live-in employees don’t qualify for overtime protections. Domestic workers are also excluded from many health and safety laws as well as protections from discrimination and harassment.
The bills cropping up in the U.S. vary by state, offering a range of protections that include paid sick days, on-duty breaks, guaranteed sleeping hours, and 30 days notice of termination.
Women's household work has long been undervalued and this helps to exacerbate the situation. The fluid nature of the work often makes things tricky. Parents of young children or elderly clients often make unrealistic demands of caregivers because they see them as part of the family. When a caregiver takes a child trick-or-treating or to the playground, sometimes parents don't view this as work. Many employers are reluctant to give caregivers breaks throughout the workday, assuming they have built-in time to rest. But the 24 hours a day on-call demands on live-in employees can be all consuming. "
What can you do to support domestic workers?
If you employ them yourself, take some time to consider whether you have a "just household."
Then sit down with a blank contract and talk to your nanny, housekeeper or home health aide about duties and salary.
Groups that Help Domestic Workers
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