Domestic workers push for rights at State House
Measure would protect 67,000 across state, expand ability to file complaints
Sonia Soares was cleaning 45 houses a month. Sometimes customers insisted that she scrub floors on her hands and knees. One client actually kicked her out of the way one day, while she was scrubbing.
“I knew at that point that only I could fight for my dignity,’’ Soares told lawmakers Tuesday at a State House hearing on a proposed Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.
The bill, cosponsored by Representative Michael J. Moran, a Democrat from Brighton, and Senator Anthony W. Petruccelli, an East Boston Democrat, would provide basic protections for 67,000 nannies, caregivers, and housekeepers in the state. It would require, among other things, that people sign contracts with those caring for their children or their homes, agreeing on precise duties, pay, time off, sick time, and other matters.
The bill also would expand legal protections for home workers by allowing them to file complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination if they are harassed or abused.
Dozens of domestic workers, their advocates, and labor leaders, packed the hearing room Tuesday.
A number of them testified about poor treatment at the hands of some employers. Many described long hours and hard work done somewhat in the shadows, because they are working in private homes without the standards and protocols of a larger workplace.
Often these workers, mostly women, are fearful of losing their jobs should they complain about their conditions, advocates said. Those who live with the families they work for can end up homeless if they are fired.
Paola Garcia, a Columbia native who lives in Boston, said she was denied sick time by a family with whom she lived for five years, caring for their three children — and her own daughter.
She said she worked 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., six days a week, with only eight hours off on Saturday.
She said she once went to the dentist for a root canal on her only day off, returning home from the appointment with a swollen face and in pain. Her employer, who was not named at the hearing, had a party to go to and asked her to take the kids out for pizza, she said.
“Working that many hours for so many years without a full day of rest in the week, or the right to go see a doctor when you need it, is wrong,’’ Garcia said.
Garcia wanted to leave, but there was a lot on the line: The employer had been “saving” $200 of her $600 paycheck each week for 2½ years, to give to her later in a lump sum. When she finally quit, the family did not pay her the money, which by then added up to thousands of dollars, she said.
Steven Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO labor group, urged legislators to move the bill forward, asking, “Who would oppose standards, basic standards of dignity and humanity?’’
He said they should make sure “that indentured service doesn’t exist here in Massachusetts, that slavery doesn’t exist here in Massachusetts.’’
Two professional women also testified about the need for protections for domestic workers, saying those workers were vital to their ability to pursue careers. Eleanor Shore, a physician and former dean of faculty affairs at Harvard Medical School, said her family had employed the same woman for 49 years.
“My professional career would not have been possible without the excellent dedicated child care and household assistance she provided,’’ Shore said.
Lydia Edwards, director of legal services at the Brazilian Immigrant Center in Boston, frequently represents domestic workers in disputes with their employers.
She said many of the problems involved “job creep,’’ an increase in work hours and tasks without extra pay. In the most extreme cases, she said, workers are subjected to sexual harassment or fired unfairly.
Gaps in the current law leave “domestic workers who work in isolation and behind closed doors vulnerable to exploitation and abuse,’’ Edwards said in her testimony.
California, Hawaii, and New York have passed similar bills of rights, according to advocates for the workers.
The measure, if approved by the Legislature’s Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, would likely go before other committees before being considered by the full House or Senate.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of houses Soares was cleaning.