It’s often said that domestic labor is the work that makes all other work possible. In the United States, it’s performed mostly by women of color and immigrants. They clean houses, cook meals, and care for children, the elderly, and the disabled. Even though the sector is growing fast — for instance, in-home caregiving is projected to become one of the fastest-growing occupations in the United States by 2026 — these workers remain one of the most unprotected groups, and are often vulnerable to exploitative labor practices.
A first-of-its-kind bill aims to tackle that. Two Democratic members of Congress, Senator Kamala Harris of California and US Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, filed legislation this week that would dramatically improve the labor conditions of roughly 2 million domestic workers across the nation.
It’s an overdue federal measure to grant basic labor protections for this workforce. The city of Seattle and nine states — including New York, California, and Massachusetts — have already enacted domestic workers rights laws. Now Congress has an opportunity to rectify the historical exclusion of this class of workers from federal employment and labor laws.
When Congress passed landmark labor laws in the New Deal era, agricultural and domestic workers — two heavily African-American groups — were specifically exempted. Historians agree now that those exclusions — concessions made to Southern white congressmen — were rooted in the legacy of slavery. Nearly 90 years later, some loopholes have been closed, but many remain. It’s why most domestic workers across the country are not entitled to unemployment benefits if they’re fired, to file a workers compensation claim if injured in a workplace accident, or to earn overtime pay.
As a result, domestic work largely happens under substandard conditions. A 2012 survey of more than 2,000 domestic workers by the National Domestic Workers Alliance found that low pay is a systemic issue. Other studies confirm it: Nearly a quarter of in-home workers live below the poverty line. The NDWA survey also shows that more than one-third of live-in workers said they had been threatened, insulted, or verbally abused.
Harris and Jayapal’s bill would establish basic protections for domestic workers, such as the right to overtime pay, paid sick days, time off, and meal and rest breaks. It would create a standard contract so that terms, duties, and conditions of employment are clear, and so that employers and employees both understand the rights domestic workers have under the law. The bill would apply to most in-home care workers, but has some limited exceptions. For instance, it defines au pairs as domestic workers, but not casual baby sitters who work 8 hours or less per week.
The legislation would also establish a national hotline for domestic workers to report cases of mistreatment or to seek support. It would provide resources for education and outreach, so that both workers and employers are aware of the new rights; and it would create a federal interagency task force to ensure enforcement of the new law.
Massachusetts was among the first states leading the way when it established similar labor standards to regulate and empower the invisible workforce of nannies, housekeepers, and other in-home caregivers. Enforcement of the law has been key: In May, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office fined three Boston-area families roughly $450,000 for failing to pay minimum wage and overtime to four workers who cooked, cleaned, and looked after their children.
The nontraditional, personal nature of the domestic workplace — behind closed doors in millions of private homes in America — has also made the industry resistant to reform, and its workers prone to abuse and exploitation. Equal treatment for in-home workers is long overdue. The national domestic workers bill represents a sensible first step to establish standard labor protections.