My Home Is a Work Place: Domestic Workers Need Health and Safety Protections

“Work that happens inside the home deserves to be valued the same as any other job and ought to have the same protections. … I stand with domestic workers in their fight to win health and safety protections.”

—Lily Tomlin, Oscar-nominated and Emmy Award-winning actor and comedian

This story originally appeared in CalMatters. It has been republished with permission.

President Joe Biden made history recently when he called on Congress to invest in a care economy by raising wages and benefits for home care workers. Here in California, we have the opportunity to advance that vision by following the lead of care workers who are imagining a better future and demanding the right to basic health and safety protections.

My partner Jane Wagner and I employ two housekeepers, who have worked with us for more than 20 years. They are immigrants from Central America who came to the United States to make a better life for themselves and their families. They are conscientious and caring, and play an essential role in managing our household. Yet despite their tremendous contribution, they, along with 300,000 other domestic workers in California, have been excluded from our state’s health and safety labor laws.

I grew up in a blue-collar household in Detroit, in a predominantly Black neighborhood. My father was a factory worker and my mother a nurse’s aide. I was aware of how many good working people were bossed around and mistreated.  

From the time I was about 10 years old, I listened to a radio program, “Beulah,” about a white family who employed a Black household worker, Beulah, played by Hattie McDaniel (and later Lillian and then Amanda Randolph). Looking back, Beulah’s character was in many ways a racist and sexist caricature, but as a child, the way Beulah exposed the power dynamics between a domestic worker and her employers, made an impression that has stuck with me since.

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What I loved about the program was how Beulah held on to her dignity, despite the demands from her employers who would often run her ragged. When her boss asks her what is for dinner after repeatedly calling her up and down the stairs, she responds in a lower volume, “I’d like to take their supper and give it to the dog.” Her employer then says, “What’s that, Beulah? I couldn’t hear.” Beulah replies, “I said, the fire’s getting low, I better fetch a log.”  

Beulah made my 10-year-old sides ache from laughing. I sided with Beulah because I recognized her experience of being treated with disrespect.  

This past year has been devastating for domestic workers across the country.  Due to COVID-19, more than 90 percent of domestic workers lost jobs by late March. And those who have continued to provide in-person care, have not had the legal protections to demand personal protective equipment, or other health and safety measures.

In California, domestic workers were asked to clean up in toxic and hazardous conditions after the devastating wildfires that ravaged our state. Some were even asked to stay and watch the properties of their employers, as the employers themselves evacuated for their own safety. It’s difficult to understand how anyone could willingly expose a person who provides care and support in their home to life-threatening conditions. Stories like this are why our country formed health and safety laws in the first place.

Domestic workers—the large majority of whom are Black women and immigrant women of color—were excluded from our country’s labor laws that were enacted back in the ’30s. And the legacy of exclusion has lasted until today. In addition to unsafe working conditions, too many workers receive poverty-level wages, experience abusive working conditions, and some are even threatened by employers because of their immigration status.

This exclusion is harmful and wrong. 

Work that happens inside the home deserves to be valued the same as any other job and ought to have the same protections. This is why I have been following this campaign, and stand with domestic workers in their fight to win health and safety protections.

Jane and I do everything to avoid being like Beulah’s bosses. When the shelter in place order started back in March, we talked with our housekeepers, and together, we decided it would be safest for us and our loved ones if we all stayed at home. I haven’t seen them in-person since, but we continue to pay them, because no one should have to make the choice between their own personal safety and earning a paycheck.

This month, domestic workers are demanding an end to the exclusion from health and safety laws through the Health and Safety for All Workers Act, Senate Bill 321, introduced by California state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo. The governor vetoed the bill last year, but this year, he has an opportunity to do right by our most essential workers. 

Coverage under Cal/OSHA regulations would ensure they have equal access to health and safety at their workplaces, namely, our homes. Of course, this benefits us too; if our home is safe for our employees, it is also safe for ourselves and our families.

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Lily Tomlin is an actor, comedian and producer who lives in Los Angeles with her partner, writer Jane Wagner.