05/08/2014 12:50 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

Illinois Domestic Workers Deserve Protection From Sexual Harassment

Sheerine Alemzadeh

This legislative session, Illinois lawmakers have the opportunity to pass the Illinois Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which acknowledges that domestic workers are "employees" under the Illinois Human Rights Act, the state law prohibiting workplace sexual harassment. Illinois' domestic workers currently have no legal ground to stand on when they are sexually harassed on the job. This bill would finally give one of Illinois' most vulnerable and most vital workforces the same protections against harassment as other employees.

Sexual harassment is endemic in low-paid industries, but domestic workers face specific risks. They work in private homes, often in complete isolation. Many perform the grueling emotional labor of caregiving, which like other service industries can lead to abusive demands and expectations from clients. They work in underpaid and unregulated conditions. The National Domestic Workers Survey, which interviewed over 2,000 domestic workers from 14 metropolitan areas across the U.S., showed that 67 percent of live-in domestic workers are paid under the state minimum wage and 35 percent of domestic workers reported working long hours with no breaks.

Inequality begets exploitation, as poor conditions chill domestic workers from asserting their rights and losing the little pay they do receive. Ninety-one percent of domestic workers surveyed did not complain about their working conditions in the 12 months prior to being interviewed because they were scared of losing their jobs. Eighty-five percent of undocumented domestic workers specifically reported fear of immigration retaliation.

The survey did not include statistics about sexual harassment at work, and it's hard to measure rates of harassment when workers have no way of filing complaints in Illinois. But workers in similarly vulnerable workplaces -- for example, the restaurant industry -- file a much higher percentage of sexual harassment complaints as compared to their overall makeup of the workforce. In an industry like domestic work, which is even less regulated, the conditions for harassment are ripe. Domestic workers in Chicago have started to speak out about their experiences, like being groped by clients and subjected to exposure, derogatory language and sexual requests. When they report the abuse to a harasser's family member or their placement agency, there is no legal obligation on their employer to stop the harassment.

Opponents of the bill say the bill places an undue burden on small employers, who don't have the wherewithal to comply with fair labor regulations. But the Illinois Human Rights Act specifically prohibits sexual harassment against all employees, no matter the size of the employer. And good employers recognize the incredible toll that harassment takes on workers' welfare, retention and productivity.

Domestic workers put a great deal of love into their work they do, helping to raise our children, provide vital care for our parents, and maintain our homes. As a sexual harassment attorney, it is defeating to tell such vital members of our labor force that they can be harassed with impunity. Seniors and people with disabilities are standing up for their caregivers, acknowledging that safe and dignified work conditions for domestic workers benefit society as a whole. These workers deserve the same commitment from us that they make, day after day, to enable our lives to run as they should. It's time to recognize the work that makes all other work possible, and pass the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in Illinois.