Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Protects Women, Immigrant Workers Previously Without Rights

By Meredith Anne Kurz

Domestic workers have recently obtained more expansive rights in the workplace. New York has led the initiative, passing a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Maryland, Illinois, Washington, Massachusetts, and Hawaii are also slated to adopt similar laws.[1] The rights granted include paid vacation days, one day off per week, paid sick days, severance pay, and overtime.[2] There was also a push for rest periods and meal times.[3] The rights are offered to domestic workers, regardless of legal status.[4] Notably, the legislation incorporates state labor protections such as Human Rights Law, labor law, N.Y.S. Labor Relations Act, and the Worker’s Compensation Act.[5] While it is uncertain whether federal rights may also be invoked, it is certain that domestic workers are allowed to organize.[6]  Remedies for violations include criminal penalties against employers and civil actions for unpaid wages, cost of benefits, and other remedies.[7] New York has released fact sheets to communicate those rights to domestic workers and direct them to the appropriate office to file complaints.[8]

The bills do not apply however to “home companions” (workers who care for someone incapable of caring for himself, without nursing or medical training) or those employed by a service or organization which arranges placement in a home.[9] Gov. Jerry Brown recently vetoed a similar initiative in California because “a drafting error would have cost the state more than $200 million annually because the bill applied to In-Home Supportive Service workers.”[10] In a letter to the New York Times, the sponsor of Bill A.B. 889, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, wrote: “Yes, we are in California, but the life of an average domestic worker here is less glamorous than that of the nannies, cooks and housemaids depicted by our state’s movie and TV studios. And despite what opponents have tried to say, the bill isn’t about casual teenage baby sitters.”[11]

Domestic workers are in a unique situation with their employers. Like homemakers, the domestic worker’s job is never done. There is always cleaning to be done, laundry to be washed, and diapers to be changed. The worker is often charged with all of it, and, depending on their legal status, can often be swindled into low wages. Many nannies and maids are also paid “off the books,” which employers think except them from the law, but the law reiterates the tax, recordkeeping, and unemployment insurance responsibilities that all employers in the state must follow.[12]

The workplace is a home, and as is the case with “live-in” nannies, sometimes it is the worker’s home as well. There are no physical boundaries between work and living and the worker is hard pressed to find personal space or time to herself. Furthermore, domestic workers are often immigrants who lack legal status. Thus, abuse is prevalent. The laws seek to combat these disadvantages and place domestic workers on a level playing field with other types of employees. While a step in the right direction, the challenges of unionizing are far from over.


[1] Michael Viratanen, Maryland to Adopt Nanny Labor Law, Associated Press, Sept. 28, 2012, available at http://www.delmarvanow.com/viewart/20120928/NEWS01/309280025/Maryland-adopt-nanny-labor-law.

[2] Brian M. Molinari, Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights Offers New Statutory Protections, 17 N.Y. Emp’t Law Letter 7, 1 (July 2010).

[3] Viratanen, supra note 1.

[4] Molinari, supra note 2.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] N.Y.S. Dep’t of Labor, Labor Rights and Protections for Domestic Workers (2011), available at http://www.labor.ny.gov/formsdocs/wp/P712-english.pdf

[9] Id.

[10] Hannah Dreier, Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in California, AB 889, Vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, Huffington Post (Oct. 1, 2012, 12:54 AM), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/01/domestic-workers-bill-of-rights-veto_n_1928001.html.

[11] Tom Ammiano, Letter to the Editor, Domestic-Worker Rights, N.Y. Times, Aug. 17, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/18/opinion/domestic-worker-rights.html?_r=0.

[12] See supra note 8.

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