Is Watered-Down Domestic Workers Law Even Enforceable?

Monday, September 30, 2013

Domestic workers were excluded from many of the protections afforded Americans in 1938 when the landmark Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, and have only recently found supporters of their cause in government.

Last week, Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 241, otherwise known as the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which makes California the third state (behind New York and Hawaii) to make housekeepers, child care providers, homecare aides and others eligible for overtime. It is expected to affect between 100,000 and 200,000 workers.

Brown vetoed a broader version of the bill last year as the state struggled with a giant budget deficit. Mandatory meal and rest breaks were stripped out of the current bill, along with protections for part-time baby-sitters, and it passed the Senate and Assembly along strict party lines. Cooks, gardeners and personal attendants who provide domestic services to low-income individuals through the state’s In Home Support Service (IHSS) program are also not covered by the law.   

A ruling by the U.S. Labor Department, announced a few weeks ago, provides minimum wage and overtime to home healthcare workers.

Under the California law, workers would be eligible for overtime pay after working nine hours in a day or 45 hours in a week. Pay for domestic workers is regarded by many as a civil rights issue because most of the employees are women, immigrants or people of color.

Questions remain as to how enforceable the new law is and to what lengths employers will go to skirt the minimum requirements for paying overtime. A limited survey (pdf) in New York, the year after that state passed its 2010 domestic workers law, found that just 17% of employers kept track of their nannies’ hours and only 15% paid the required time-and-a-half overtime. (New York overtime kicks in after 40 hours in a week.)

The Nation speculated that the survey, limited to the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, indicated that “the relatively wealthy and well-informed Brooklyn residents who voluntarily chose to respond to the survey are probably doing better by their employees than most others.”

But it might be hard to tell exactly what effect California’s law will have at home. The Nation points out that the plight of domestic workers has never been comprehensively studied anywhere in the country. Reliance on feedback from abused workers is also likely to be sparse, considering their vulnerable place in society.

Nicole Hallet, an attorney for a legal clinic for domestic workers run by the Urban Justice Center, told the publication she has never met a nanny through the clinic who was paid the proper overtime wage. “Overtime abuses are rampant,” she said.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Governor Signs Domestic Worker Bill of Rights (by Laura Flanders, The Nation)

8 Things to Know about California's Domestic Workers Bill of Rights (by Josie Huang, KPCC)

The Uphill Battle to Enforce Domestic Workers' Rights (by Sharon Lerner, The Nation)

Gov. Brown Signs Bill Making Domestic Workers Eligible for Overtime (by Melanie Mason, Los Angeles Times)

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