D.C.’s domestic workers can’t take the abuse any longer. They might not have to.
“Teacher, mother, provider,” she said. “It was very difficult.”
Reina, who asked to be referred to by her first name out of concern for retaliation, is a domestic worker in D.C. When she moved to the U.S. from Honduras in 2018, domestic work seemed like a good setup. Reina enjoys taking care of children, and meeting families helped her get to know a new country.
But soon, Reina felt her employment as a domestic worker relegated her to second-class status. Families discriminated against her because she wasn’t born in the U.S., or because she isn’t fluent in English. The comments hurt, but without labor protections that are standard in other workplaces, there was little she could do to stop them.
“There are times that I have not liked my work because I don’t feel valued,” she said in an interview conducted in Spanish.
This feeling was solidified one day when Reina went to a client’s home to clean. When she got there, the man said he wanted to get to know her before she started cleaning, eying her dress. Reina immediately knew something was wrong. She told him she had to take out the trash and then snuck out. Harassed and without a paycheck, she didn’t call the police. She didn’t even realize at the time that she could have done so.
The median annual earnings for a domestic worker in the Washington region are $21,573, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). That’s $10,000 less than what a full-time worker would have made over the past year earning D.C.’s minimum wage, which just rose from $15.20 per hour to $16.10. Domestic workers are not always employed full-time, and many report wage theft.
After years of exploitation, Reina and nearly 9,000 other domestic workers in the District may finally receive protections other workers take for granted. A bill pending before the D.C. Council, the Domestic Worker Employment Rights Amendment Act of 2022, responds to the abuses domestic workers face with three provisions — adding domestic workers to human rights and workplace safety protections, mandating a formal contract between domestic workers and employers, and giving grants to community organizations to publicize domestic workers’ rights. The protections would apply to domestic workers hired directly by individuals, as well as those who work for agencies that handle the arrangements.
“We have sacrificed a lot to take care of your children,” Reina said. “And this is why we are asking for this bill to finally be included in human rights law.”
At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who chairs the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, introduced the bill in March after months of advocacy from NDWA’s local chapter. Eight councilmembers joined Silverman as co-introducers. Ahead of a June 16 public hearing, council staff and advocates agreed that the bill was likely to pass.
But after the hearing, Council Chair Phil Mendelson referred the legislation to two other committees — the Committee on Government Operations and Facilities and the Committee on Business and Economic Development. Silverman criticized the action, which she warned could prevent action on the bill before the expiration of the current two-year council period.
“Delaying the passage of these bills has consequences on vulnerable women of color who earn a living as domestic workers in our city,” she wrote in a memo to Mendelson.
Responding on Twitter last week, Mendelson said the bill could still pass by the end of the year. The council will be in recess starting July 15, meaning the earliest the bill could see a markup is this fall. The two additional committees that will be reviewing and marking up the legislation are chaired by members who co-introduced the bill, Mendelson pointed out
Even before the recent procedural wrangling, proponents were calling for the council to promptly add protections that advocates and domestic workers say are overdue and desperately needed.
“It’s time that you take us into account because we don’t have a single right,” Reina said. “We do work with love.”
The legislation before the council is actually a pared-down version of a 2019 bill that would have provided domestic workers with nearly every existing worker protection: overtime pay; family, medical and universal paid leave; unemployment and workers’ compensation; and guaranteed rest periods and days off. The previous bill also would have established a division in the Department of Employment Services for domestic workers. Despite the expressed support of 11 councilmembers, the bill never received a hearing.
This year, NDWA pushed for a less ambitious bill to ensure it can pass, but the membership is hoping to win more protections eventually. In the meantime, having a contract with their employer will give domestic workers the opportunity to negotiate for paid leave and rest time.
“We dream big here at NDWA — we think our workers deserve a lot more than just the floor of the laws,” senior policy attorney Reena Arora said in an interview.
Domestic work as work
Domestic workers have fought to be included in U.S. labor protections for a century while housecleaning, nannying and caretaking work continued to be set apart from other forms of employment. When Congress passed the Social Security Act in the 1930s, legislators excluded domestic workers from the program — a decision that scholars from the Urban Institute say was based on racist views toward domestic workers, who were mainly Black at the time. Though Harry Truman signed a bill extending coverage in 1950, the broader precedent was set. Domestic workers are excluded from several of D.C.’s labor protections and benefits, including workplace protection and anti-discrimination laws.
But domestic workers are workers, a point emphasized in the testimony of 20 members of the D.C. chapter of NDWA at the June 16 hearing. If anything, domestic workers are more in need of labor protection than the average employee, said many of the 100 people who testified for the bill: They work in the homes of their employers, isolated from public view. Over 90% of D.C.’s domestic workers are women, many of whom have experienced sexual harassment, according to testimony at the hearing. Just under 80% are people of color and 60% are immigrants, who may speak limited English and rely on the families they work for to adapt to the District. Workers are entirely at the mercy of their employer, and there’s no human resources department to resolve disputes.
This bill would begin to build a set of protections for domestic workers. If passed, it would include domestic workers within the framework of the D.C. Human Rights Act, which prevents discrimination in the workplace based on race, gender, religion, and 14 other protected traits. Domestic workers who experience harassment or discrimination would be able to file a complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights. Domestic workers would also come under D.C.’s laws regulating occupational safety and health. Many people who employ domestic workers don’t take the safety precautions required by law in larger workplaces, several workers testified.
Workers would have to assert these protections by filing a complaint or asking for employers to mitigate hazards, Arora said.
Defining the job
To Linda Mamani, domestic workers are magicians, able to do anything asked of them. And a lot is asked — Mamani has often had to work extra hours without pay, she testified. She’s hoping a provision in the bill will require her employer to sign a contract with her ending that practice.
While domestic workers are generally hired for one task, such as child care or cleaning, their responsibilities and hours often pile up. There are power differentials in domestic work relationships that embolden employers to ask more than initially agreed upon, according to testimony from employers and domestic workers. The threat of retaliation if workers speak up is real, and employers have fired domestic workers for being pregnant or going to a doctor’s appointment, workers testified.
While domestic workers may work with an employer for many years on either a full- or part-time basis, people who hire domestic workers in D.C. don’t have to sign any formal agreement with their employees. If passed in its current form, the bill would require any person who employs a domestic worker for more than five hours a month to draft a contract outlining duties, hours, salary, rest and meal breaks, and leave policies. Under the bill, the mayor would be required to post a contract template online.
A template that includes paid leave and breaks could make it more likely that employers provide domestic workers those benefits. Currently, many domestic workers are expected to work without guaranteed sick days or time off. This continuous work exacerbates the stress of an already demanding job, workers testified.
This was the case for Ann Marie Ramdial, a domestic worker from Trinidad who has lived in D.C. since 2007. Ramdial testified that she works with new mothers, many of whom call her a “baby whisperer” because she always knows what’s wrong with their child. Though Ramdial likes caretaking, stress caused her to lose so much weight that her doctor told her continuing to do domestic work could kill her.
“I am passionate, I am strong, but many people want us to be silent,” she said. Ramdial has now left domestic work and helps other caretakers stand up for their rights.
The first step of many
With such a dispersed labor force, several people told Silverman’s committee, it’s crucial for the city to run an information campaign about the protections to which domestic workers are entitled — including those already in place under existing local and federal law.
The bill would authorize the mayor to give grants to community-based organizations to advertise the rights of domestic workers. These grants could also go to organizations like NDWA to help workers fight abuses and file claims — a successful model in New York, according to Arora, the NDWA attorney.
“It is far too much to ask for a worker to do that on their own initiative, especially in a language they don’t know,” she said. Many workers are initially scared to bring a case against an employer. “It was through domestic worker leaders … they came forward,” Arora added.
Domestic workers and their advocates hope that any future education campaign — along with the attention the bill has already received — will change the way people who employ nannies and housecleaners think about their work. As for Reina, she is hoping for more rest breaks and days off, but also to feel empowered in her workplace.
“We have to be respected,” she said. “People have to know the work we do is dignified and valuable.”
This article was co-published with The DC Line.
Annemarie Cuccia covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. This joint position was made possible by The Nash Foundation and individual contributors.