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Domestic Workers Bill Killed In California By Jerry Brown Veto

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California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights late on Sept. 30. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights late on Sept. 30. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

At 1 a.m., Patricia Aceberos drags herself out of bed to give a round of medication to her patient. Four hours later, the Fremont, Calif., caregiver is back up for the next dose, hoping that she can squeeze in just 50 more minutes of sleep before beginning a full day of cleaning, cooking and taking care of the elderly woman whom she considers "like a second mom."

Aceberos works six days a week around the clock caring for a woman who suffers from dementia and a failed hip-replacement surgery that has left her unable to walk.

Yet Aceberos doesn't receive any overtime pay. She says she never manages a full night of uninterrupted sleep. She eats what her client eats for every meal -- "lots of soup." She has thought about quitting, but she says affection for her patient keeps her around. Not to mention the need to support herself and help her four kids.

When the California state legislature on Aug. 30 passed a bill to provide domestic workers with overtime pay and a guaranteed eight hours of sleep, Aceberos hoped her life would improve. But Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights late on Sept. 30, ending a three-year grassroots campaign that mobilized more than 8,000 workers and sent groups to the state capital 15 separate times to end decades of exclusion from labor protection laws.

"Seeing the domestic workers who have sacrificed so many days to travel up to Sacramento -- to see them crying was heartbreaking," said Andrea Cristina Mercado, director of the California Domestic Workers Coalition. "We believe that great movements create the context for great acts of leadership, and we created this opportunity for Governor Jerry Brown to lead the nation towards progress and equality for a growing workforce of women. And he made a very unfortunate choice."

Formally known as AB 889, the vetoed legislation called for protections similar to those that workers in other industries have enjoyed for years, including overtime pay and meal and rest breaks, as well as appropriate sleep accommodations for live-in workers and the ability to use employers' kitchens. Under the companionship exemption in California's 1976 wage regulations, domestic workers who take care of individuals do not qualify for those protections.

For workers like Aceberos, such protections could change the cadence of their lives.

Caitlin Vega, a legislative advocate with the California Labor Federation, calls the eight-hour day "something that workers fought and died to create ... It's about the idea that working people deserve some quality of life, deserve to be able to go home at the end of the day and be with their own kids."

In a statement accompanying his veto, Brown pointed to questions about the extra burden that the protections would place on employers, echoing the stance of business groups like the California Chamber of Commerce.

"Employers in California have been hit by a ton of class-action litigation over what a meal period is, what it means to provide a meal period, and things like that, costing businesses a ton of money," said Jennifer Barrera, the chamber's labor and employment advocate. The domestic workers' bill would have put "that same type of burden onto working families who are struggling, I'm sure, to already afford a nanny."

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), who introduced the bill, dismissed the "babysitter smear" as a Republican attempt to distract from the heart of the issue: The employers who would really be affected are the third-party agencies -- "these multistate corporations who don't pay their workers overtime or give them rest breaks and don't want to pay their workers any more," Mercado said.

Domestic workers have tried and failed to secure the New Deal's labor standards for themselves for decades, said Eileen Boris, a University of California-Santa Barbara professor who has written extensively about domestic workers.

"This is not radical," Vega said. "We're not creating new rights that no one has ever heard of."

In California, only 20 percent of domestic workers are white, according to the 2006-2008 American Community Survey. Almost 70 percent are Latina, and a whopping 93 percent are women.

According to a 2007 study that Mujeres Unidas y Activas conducted of domestic workers in Northern California, over 90 percent did not receive overtime pay and 11 percent brought in less than the minimum wage.

For Lupita Guzman, who works as a companion for a disabled woman, negotiating over wages and time off is a tricky business. "I have a hard time sometimes setting boundaries because I have a fear of losing the job," Guzman said. "I feel kind of afraid to ask for a raise or for overtime pay."

Guzman is paid a flat $10 an hour, regardless of how many hours she works. After joining a women's group at a nearby labor center, she said she realized just how poorly many of her peers were treated and became aware of the struggle for legal protections.

"Mistreatment. Really low pay. Finding a note that says, 'Here's your last paycheck. Thank you. We don't need you anymore,'" Guzman said, recounting stories she has heard.

Harassment and violence are also a real danger. The same 2007 study reported that in the two months prior, 20 percent of workers had been insulted or threatened by their employer, 9 percent had experienced some form of sexual harassment and 9 percent were victims of violence.

"Sometimes they are [hit] with a towel or [get] a pinch," caregiver Rose Mejica told The Huffington Post.

But more than just protecting meal breaks, the workers had hoped the bill would signal a fundamental shift in the way society regards their work, said Vega, the labor advocate.

"We really, really, really need this bill," Aceberos told HuffPost ahead of the veto. "Not only me, but all the caregivers and their families."

New York state extended similar protections to its domestic workers in 2010. So far, National Domestic Workers United, a national advocacy group, has secured more than $700,000 in unpaid wages and penalties under the law.

"We really see that the bill has decreased the vulnerability of domestic workers," said Helen Panagiotopoulos, the group's communications director. "It has established basic rights and recognition for an industry that had been invisible."

Advocates in five other states are launching similar campaigns for domestic worker legislation.

"[This struggle is about] educating people that the systems that we have in place -- and our definitions of what is work and who counts as a worker -- are not natural," Boris said, "but were the product of social policy, of financial decisions, of where money was going to be allocated in this society. And so they are subject to political struggle and change."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Eileen Boris as a professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Boris teaches at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

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