It is difficult to imagine being forced to work sixteen to twenty-four hour days with no lunch break, rest, or sleep; or being required to stay at the worksite around the clock just in case an assignment unexpectedly comes up. Add to that no right to overtime pay and you would think we are describing an employment situation long before labor laws were passed in the United States. Unfortunately, for many of the nearly 200,000 domestic workers in California who "catch the early bus" to work, these long work hours with no right to a rest break, lunch or overtime is reality, not history. California law excludes these workers from basic labor protections that apply to just about every other job in our state. In the coming days Governor Jerry Brown has an opportunity to put an end to this exclusion by signing Assembly Bill 889, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano.
The members of this important and growing workforce in California come from many cultures, speak a variety of languages, and are 93% female. They also earn just over the minimum wage for their often-strenuous labor, making less than $20,000 a year on average. The workers covered by AB 889 provide valuable services inside private homes caring for children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. These caregivers care for children, elderly parents, and other loved ones, making it possible for other working Californians to carry on with their jobs in local boardrooms and office buildings. These workers bathe, feed, care for and ensure the health and safety of our family members. Yet, California law fails to grant them basic labor protections.
The marginalization of these workers and their campaign for fair treatment is in many ways tied to the civil rights struggle of this country. In the 1930's Congress decided to explicitly exclude farm workers and domestic workers from the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. This denial of basic labor rights was a concession to the political influence of Southern congressmen and large agribusiness. While our labor laws have greatly expanded since the 1930s, domestic workers still find themselves suspended in time--they lack the right to meal and rest breaks, and many are not entitled to overtime even if they work 24 hours a day.
The struggle for fair pay and worker rights was a key component of the civil rights era. Just hours before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood with sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. He spoke of the grave injustice toward those who were cleaning up scraps from the street but not paid enough to put fresh food on their own tables. "God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and his children who can't eat three square meals a day," said King.
Forty-four years later, gaping economic inequality persists in America and, although formal civil rights are now in place, people of color are disproportionately likely to hold low-wage jobs, lack health insurance and have less money in savings. Such injustice will persist unless we improve the conditions of low-wage workers. Like the sanitation workers before them, domestic workers in California are simply asking for fair pay as a way to provide for their own families. AB 889 is an opportunity to redress a long-standing inequity and close a dark chapter in our history.
In 2010, New York State passed similar legislation to that which is now on Governor Brown's desk. That first-of-its-kind law established overtime pay, a day of rest, paid leave, and protection from discrimination and harassment for domestic workers. Across the country, states like Hawai'i, Massachusetts and Illinois are also considering laws to strengthen the rights and protections for domestic workers. California now has a unique opportunity to lead the nation and support one of the fastest growing workforces in our nation to achieve greater justice and dignity on the job.
Many of the women supporting AB 889 remind us that domestic workers have always played a pivotal role in pursuing social justice. Before becoming a seasoned civil rights leader, Rosa Parks and her siblings performed domestic work. Cesar Chavez's sister was a domestic worker. Today, across the country, thousands of domestic workers perform the same jobs that Chavez's sister and Rosa Parks and her sisters and brothers did in the era of segregation. And yet despite how far we have come in ending official discrimination, domestic workers remain systematically underpaid and unable to access the basic employment rights available to other workers.
The day after his speech in Memphis, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., lost his life. But his vision and his movement carry on in the thousands of workers across California, who aren't sitting down now but standing up for their rights -- and demanding to be heard.
It's time to end the exclusion. It is time for AB 889 to become the law in California.
Dolores Huerta, Labor Leader and Civil Rights Activist
Ai-jen Poo, National Domestic Workers Alliance
Alice Huffman, California NAACP
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