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About Time: New York's Domestic Workers May Finally Get Rights on the Job

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Is scrubbing somebody else's floor "work"? How about staying up all night - every night - with another person's colicky baby? Or helping their elderly mother shower and use the bathroom? The reality is, domestic workers like nannies, caregivers and housekeepers do some of the hardest and most necessary work around. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are able to do their own jobs and keep their families functioning only because they rely on the labor of nannies and caregivers, yet these domestic employees are denied the basic workplace protections most other workers are guaranteed. That may finally change when the New York State Senate finally votes on the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (pdf) next week.

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, sponsored by State Senator Diane Savino, guarantees basic workplace protections like overtime pay, the chance to take at least a day off every week, coverage under employment discrimination laws, advance notice if a domestic employee is about to be fired, and minimal paid sick time and vacation. It would apply to 200,000 domestic workers in New York currently subject to the whims of their employers when it comes to these fundamental rights. Many employers of domestic workers are excellent bosses who form warm personal relationships with their employees, but the personal stories of domestic workers collected by advocacy organization Domestic Workers United highlight the danger of making essential workplace standards contingent on the good will of employers.

As Meaghan Winter's powerful recent article in Slate points out, even as a college-educated citizen working as a nanny for a boss she liked, she "found it hard to stick up for myself... I knew I should tell her that I needed a set salary and schedule, but I felt disposable and was afraid of confrontation." She wished for "legitimacy and a code to rely on." The larger workforce of largely immigrant women working alone in isolated homes where they may also live-in is still more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

As Winters also points out, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights addresses a tremendous historical injustice: when the Fair Labor Standards Act and other key workplace protections were passed in the 1930s, domestic employees and agricultural workers (also awaiting a legislative remedy in New York State) were deliberately excluded to secure the votes of Dixiecrat Senators opposed to workplace rights in occupations dominated by women and people of color. This legacy of race and gender continue to shape how domestic work is treated today. As Domestic Workers United noted in their 2006 report:

The struggle of domestic work is to be recognized as "real work." Its historical roots in slavery, its association with women's unpaid household labor, its largely immigrant and women of color workforce and exclusion from legal protections reinforce the notion that domestic work is less valuable than work outside of the home.

Historically, African slaves, indentured servants or hired maids performed housework. After the abolition of slavery, the paid domestic workforce became predominantly Black women until the Civil Rights movement opened doors to other occupations... [Today] Ninety-five percent of domestic workers in New York are people of color, and 93% are women.

The effort to overcome these barriers and pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights illustrates everything that is most frustrating - and most promising - about the New York State legislature. As Crain's New York reports, "there is no organized opposition to the bill." Yet the effort to enact it has taken years - becoming derailed most recently by last year's coup in the State Senate. But for all Albany's dysfunction, New York may yet be the first state in the nation to enact this precedent-setting labor reform: 72 years late, yet ahead of the pack.