By Sara Herschander / Capital & Main
After nearly a decade working as a live-in nanny in New York City, Ludie Delva knew she was being underpaid, but didn’t know there was a minimum wage. And though she worked upwards of 60 hours per week, she wasn’t aware that she also qualified for overtime that might’ve helped with the bills she struggled to pay on her $500 weekly paycheck.
Nor did she know about New York state’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, legislation that would ultimately allow Delva to reclaim over $25,000 in stolen wages from two former employers. The final amounts paled in comparison to what they owed her, but the money still allowed Delva to purchase a home for her family in Haiti, and survive a pandemic that thrust domestic workers around the country into prolonged economic uncertainty.
“I didn’t know my rights — I didn’t even know that I had rights,” said Delva. “That’s why I accepted the money they paid me. I didn’t know I had a voice. I just accepted it.”
It’s been a decade since New York implemented the country’s first-ever statewide domestic workers’ bill of rights, built to help protect nannies, house cleaners and home care workers — many of whom are immigrant women of color — from rampant wage theft and unsafe working conditions. That’s made it a testing ground for the challenges — and victories — of implementation at a time that organizers have called a possible turning point in the fight for workers’ rights across the country. Domestic workers in New Jersey and Washington, D.C., are on the cusp of gaining their own bills of rights, and organizers continue to make a major push for a federal bill, which was reintroduced to Congress in July.
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Much of the opposition to the bills stems from entrenched perceptions over care work. While conservative opponents of the bills view them as government overreach, even many employers and care workers struggle to see the home as a workplace.
“If you ask the average domestic worker whether or not their rights are being violated, they’ll probably say no,” said Reena Arora, senior policy attorney at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), who noted that educating workers and employers about their rights has been a major challenge for the law. The majority of labor violations common in the industry, including a lack of overtime pay, subminimum wages and workplace harassment, remain vastly underreported.
Yet, such violations are not inevitable. Members of the national domestic workers’ group, which formed in 2007, are far more likely to know about their rights, according to the group’s surveys. Delva first joined NDWA in 2016 after being approached by an organizer at a playground where she took the child in her care, a common form of outreach.
One of NDWA’s primary forms of advocacy has centered around securing passage of domestic workers’ bills of rights in cities and states. Over the past 12 years, 10 states and two cities (Seattle and Philadelphia) have taken steps to improve wages and conditions through bills of rights for domestic workers, who — due to a legacy of slavery — have long been excluded from federal labor rights.
Many state laws still refer to domestic workers as “domestic servants,” a remnant of a time when most care workers were enslaved or indentured.
In practice, that means that domestic workers are especially vulnerable to wage violations and poor conditions. There are more than 2.2 million domestic workers in the country, over 91% of whom are women and more than half of whom are women of color. More than one quarter of domestic workers reported feeling unsafe at work and 36% lack rest or meal breaks, according to a survey of over 2,400 NDWA members. Many state laws still refer to workers as “domestic servants,” a remnant of a time when most care workers were enslaved or indentured.
In 2021, housekeepers made an average hourly wage of $14.22 per hour, while home health aides made $14.07 per hour, according to the Department of Labor. Child care workers made an average of $13.31 per hour. Domestic workers are three times as likely to be living in poverty as other workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Most of Delva’s employers never provided a written contract, and she’s often found herself taking on additional tasks like house cleaning amid stagnant wages. The $500 that she made in 2017 was the same as what she had made in her first job in 2008. When she demanded higher pay from her employers, they were insistent that they couldn’t afford any more.
“They didn’t want to listen,” she said. “They said, ‘Oh, we’re a young family — this is what we can pay you.’”
Still, Delva didn’t realize she was legally entitled to higher pay. Until, one day, she mentioned her situation to a group of organizers at NDWA. They brought up the possibility that she could pursue a case under New York’s domestic workers bill of rights, but like many workers, she worried about losing her job.
But, from that day on, she began looking for a new job. When she did find one, it took her months to work up the courage to go through with the lawsuit. Lawyers from NDWA originally sued her former employer for $44,000 in lost wages from lack of overtime pay and subminimum wages.
After months of negotiations, she received $16,000.
‘Employers Don’t Even Realize That Their Home Is a Workplace’
It isn’t just workers who struggle to keep up with a hodgepodge of local, state and federal policies. The network of people who employ workers in their homes is vast, diverse and often naive about their own responsibilities. They include new parents desperate for affordable child care, and seniors using Medicare to pay for the assistance they need at home.
When Donna Schneiderman became a new parent, she had nowhere to turn for guidance on how to set fair wages and conditions for the woman she hired to care for her children.
Then, in 2008, a group of organizers stopped by her children’s Hebrew school in Brooklyn to speak with parents about a new push to engage employers in the fight for domestic workers’ rights. It was a watershed moment for Schneiderman. She still tears up when she remembers her oldest child, then 10 years old, paying close attention as parents described the importance of care workers to their families.
“My daughter was actively listening to how much her care matters,” said Schneiderman, who has been a part of Hand in Hand, a network of domestic employers invested in the fight for workers’ rights, ever since. She traveled to Albany and spoke with her daughter at rallies in support of New York’s bill of rights, and though her children are adults now, she remains deeply engaged.
Informing employers of their own responsibilities — and providing them with the resources they need to write fair work agreements and developing healthy relationships with workers — is a critical piece in the fight for workers’ rights, advocates say.
“People often think that we’re nothing more than workers. But we’re also mothers, we’re sisters, and we have a family, too.”
~ Sucel Mérida, domestic worker
“A lot of employers don’t even realize that their home is a workplace,” said Stacy Kono, executive director of Hand in Hand, who stressed the role of racism and sexism in the devaluation of care work. “We’re breaking through really deeply held cultural ideas about domestic work.”
Hand in Hand has since brought its strategy in engaging employers to other states and cities attempting to improve conditions for domestic work. That includes Washington, D.C., where organizers are fighting to pass a bill of rights that would extend workplace protections and mechanisms for outreach and enforcement.
“People often think that we’re nothing more than workers,” said Sucel Mérida, 45, who has been a domestic worker in Washington, D.C., for the past 17 years. “But, we’re also mothers, we’re sisters, and we have a family, too.”
Mérida, who is originally from Guatemala, has always advocated for her rights in the workplace. In particular, she has always asked employers to provide a written contract, which she credits with helping to protect her from exploitation. Now, she wants to make sure that all of D.C.’s 9,040 domestic workers have access to the same kind of protection in the workplace.
If passed, D.C.’s domestic workers bill of rights would require written agreements between employers and workers, and it would extend D.C.’s Human Rights Act to domestic workers. Like Delva, Mérida became a member of NDWA after being approached by organizers in a park. She now recruits other members for the group as a worker organizer.
“We’re the ones who care for the people you love the most. We’re the ones who take care of your children and the elderly and those with disabilities,” said Mérida. “So, why are we still excluded? We’re the ones who make it possible for others to go to work, through the work that we do in the home. It’s a very big injustice.”
‘I Needed a Paycheck’
At Delva’s new job, she received an initial offer of $650 per week. When she negotiated her new employers up to $700, they acted like they were doing her a favor. Yet, working upwards of 60 hours per week, she still made less than minimum wage in 2018, and still lacked overtime pay.
“I needed that job so badly. That’s why I took it,” said Delva. “But I was always complaining that they weren’t paying me properly.”
This time, she took notes. Shortly after she received the $16,000 settlement check from her previous employer in March 2020, the pandemic hit. The father of the child she now cared for moved to Connecticut with his daughter, while her mother stayed in New York City as a frontline medical worker. They asked Delva to move with them, tacking an extra $100 to her weekly pay to help compensate for what would now become a seven-day workweek.
She stayed with the family throughout the pandemic, and through their move back to New York City, through their toddler’s misbehavior during her terrible twos, and, as Delva likes to joke, her terrible threes, fours and fives. She had been with them for three years. One day, she woke up to pain in her arm and called out of work the next day. A doctor told her she would need the week off to recover from her strain. When she told the family, they fired her on the spot.
She checked her notes and called her lawyer.
For many workers, wrongful termination is their gateway to learning more about their rights. Like Delva, many are fearful of suing or advocating for themselves while they are still employed. The pandemic hit domestic workers especially hard, and many, including Delva, found themselves out of work. At the same time, the number of domestic workers hoping to participate in NDWA’s legal claims processes nearly tripled, according to Arora.
If passed, the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would extend paid overtime and other protections to domestic workers around the country.
When New York passed its bill of rights in 2010, it was supposed to prevent the kind of exploitation that Delva experienced. When Allison Julien began working as a nanny in New York City in the early 1990s, she worked 10 to 12 hour days without breaks, without sick time, and without basic protections. Her undocumented status at time — Julien is originally from Barbados — further emboldened employers to treat her poorly and illegally.
“I spent almost 12 years working under those conditions, where I had no power. I had no voice. I was putting up with stuff that I didn’t feel like as a part of who I am or I didn’t feel comfortable with,” said Julien. “But I needed a paycheck.”
Julien was a founding member of NDWA and is now organizing director of the group’s We Dream in Black organizing initiative for Black domestic workers. She was one of the first organizers that Delva spoke with when she joined NDWA, and she was heavily involved in the fight for New York’s bill of rights.
“Twelve years later, I still feel like a public campaign is needed,” said Julien, who takes tremendous pride in the state’s groundbreaking bill of rights, but knows its implementation is imperfect, and securing funding for outreach and enforcement remains an important battle.
“When we think of a 12-year-old child, they’re not quite grown yet. They think they are, but they’re not,” said Julien. “I feel the same way with the bill. It’s been 12 years since we passed the law, but there’s still so much work that needs to be done.”
‘I Have a Family’
Organizers across the country have learned lessons from the growing pains of New York’s domestic workers bill of rights.
Washington, D.C.’s citywide bill for domestic workers would include provisions for an outreach initiative intended to educate both workers and employers about new standards for the industry, a critical lesson taken from the importance of outreach in New York and other states with their own bills. It would also require that employers provide a written contract.
“What we’re fighting for now is different from what we were fighting for even four years ago,” said Alana Eichner, lead organizer of NDWA’s D.C. chapter. She notes that the bill they’re hoping will pass by the end of this year includes more mechanisms for community enforcement, and integrates lessons learned in New York and other states and cities.
Organizers have also turned their focus sharply to the prospect of a federal domestic workers bill of rights, co-sponsored by Sens. Kristen Gillibrand and Ben Ray Luján and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, which would extend paid overtime and other protections to domestic workers around the country, while establishing enforcement and outreach mechanisms.
As for Delva, she received $20,000 in a settlement with the employers who fired her in 2021. She lived off of the settlement as she searched for steady work, eventually landing a job for $17 per hour at a local child care center. That industry carries its own host of labor issues.
She’s hoping to find a new job as a nanny soon, and now has a network to support her while she looks. She went to the movies to see Black Panther: Wakanda recently with a group of other workers affiliated with NDWA. When she mentioned that she was looking for a job, another member offered to help her find work for fair pay.
“I feel like I have a family,” said Delva. “When I have a problem, I have someone to talk to.”