The Case For the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights: “Called Essential, Treated As Expendable”

Ever since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, domestic workers have been legally excluded from common workplace protections. On July 29, the historic Domestic Worker Bill of Rights was reintroduced to Congress.

Almost 92 percent of domestic workers are women, mostly immigrants and women of color. (Instagram)

“Every day, over two million workers—overwhelmingly women and majority women of color—go to work in our homes,” said Ai-jen Poo, the executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). In these homes across the nation, those 2.2 million workers care for children and elders, clean and support people with disabilities—without any legal protections. 

Ever since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, domestic and agricultural workers have been legally excluded from common workplace protections. The result is an increasingly vulnerable and precarious profession: Only 16 percent of domestic workers have a written agreement with their employer; over one-third of domestic workers do not get meal and rest breaks; and 23 percent of domestic workers report feeling unsafe at work.

Domestic workers, organizers and activists have been working with members of Congress to mend the precarity of domestic work. On July 29, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) reintroduced the historic Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, first introduced by Jayapal and then-Senator Kamala Harris in 2019.

If passed, the bill would “close the loopholes that exclude domestic workers from federal labor and civil rights laws and it would create critical new benefits and protections for domestic workers—including requiring employers to provide a written agreement about pay, duties, schedules, breaks, and time-off policies—giving these workers stability and respect,” said Gillibrand. 

“Today, millions of Americans rely on us to take care of their health, families and homes, and the pandemic clearly highlighted that,” said Glenora Romans, a Houston-based caregiver and health worker and a member of the NDWA.

At an NDWA press conference for the reintroduction of the bill, Romans spoke to the irony of working in an industry that is both essential and undervalued—as nursing homes became the epicenter of the pandemic and school closures left parents without childcare options, domestic workers did not have the option to work from home.

“The COVID-19 pandemic only highlights the cruel gaps in our labor laws as millions of courageous domestic workers—who are disproportionately working-class women, women of color, and immigrant women—have risked their own health and the health of their families to keep America afloat,” said Jayapal. “They are being called essential but treated as expendable.”

A Long History of Discrimination

Amid COVID-19, the Biden administration’s investments in care work and human infrastructure will assist domestic workers to an extent, but they’re not a full solution.

”It doesn’t fix the heart of the problem, which is that in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act exempted domestic workers, farm workers and other jobs disproportionately held by Black and brown Americans,” said Jayapal. “The exclusion was not accidental. It was intentional—100 percent by design, and on purpose.”

The history of domestic workers in the United States begins with slavery and the forced reproductive labor of Black women. Later, immigrants—the majority of whom were AAPI and Latina women—joined the ranks of domestic workers, where abuse was normalized, as well as the devaluation of labor and oppression of the workforce. The exclusion of a profession that is extremely racialized and gendered is an extension of the legacy of ensuring dependable, cheap and exploitable labor.

Centering Domestic Workers in Legal Solutions

At the press conference, Romans described a personal experience where an employer verbally promised pay for a seven-hour job. Upon completion—even though the agreed-upon amount was less than $100—Romans was only given part of her pay. To this day, she is still waiting on the rest of her money.

Etelbina Hauser, a house cleaner in Washington state who also spoke at the press conference, spoke about a similar experience: “Previous employers have stolen more than 20 hours of pay from me, they have stolen tips that should be mine. They take advantage of the fact that many of us don’t have a written contract.”

High levels of wage theft, discrimination, workplace accidents and sexual harassment characterize the domestic work industry—along with a staggering 90 percent of domestic workers going without any benefits at all—making Romans’s and Hauser’s experiences unjust, yet common. 

The specific provisions of the bill aim to address every area of vulnerability experienced by domestic workers.

“One of the things I was most proud of was the process we engaged in to write the legislation. It was a process that took almost a year, and it included at the table domestic workers who knew the problem and knew the solution,” said Jayapal.

If passed, the bill would: 

  • Guarantee the right to rest and meal breaks

  • Protect domestic workers from lost pay from last minute cancellations from employers.

  • Establish the Domestic Worker Standards Board to determine health and safety regulations for the industry, including transparency about cleaning supply safety information.

  • Protect workers from retaliation when they exercise their rights, including prohibiting employers to report or threaten to report an individual’s citizenship or immigration status. 

  • Require written agreements to ensure clear and explicit guarantees for the conditions, duties, and full terms of employment that adhere to the worker’s rights.

  • Protect live-in workers by providing access to communications to prevent abuses and requiring substantial notice of termination so workers have adequate time to secure housing.

  • Provide affordable healthcare and retirement benefits.

  • Ensure enforcement of the bill with the creation of an Interagency Task Force on Protecting Domestic Workers’ Workplace Rights to oversee implementation and address any barriers. 

Revolutionizing Labor Law

Upon introduction, the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights already had more than 100 co-sponsors in the House—which bodes well for the future of the bill. 

Gillibrand shared two avenues for passing the legislation in the Senate. The first would be to add the bill to the reconciliation prepared by Senate Democrats—although provisions could only be budgetary instead of procedural and policy-based. The other: Do away with the filibuster.

The passage of the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights means transforming labor law to create true conditions of economic, racial and gender justice. The bill is the first step towards a future organizers have been working towards, where with a protected domestic workforce, all people are better able to make the best choices for themselves and their families. 

“We all want the freedom of living in America and [to] work safely with dignity and respect,” said Romans. The need for a strong labor and human rights infrastructure for domestic workers is especially important when considering the projected growth of the care work industry in coming years: Between an aging population and a comparatively low risk for automation of care work jobs, it is certain that the demand for domestic work will not subside.

As Hauser said, “Care jobs are the jobs of the future, and we must make sure that they are good jobs.”

Take Action

If you are interested in ensuring the passage of the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, contact your representatives and support organizations like the NDWA.

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Lily Sendroff is an editorial fellow at Ms. and a rising senior at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She majors in the study of women and gender and government, with a concentrative subfield in comparative politics. Her work typically focuses on feminist economics, transnational feminism, and policy analysis.