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Legislative Memo: Domestic Workers Bill of Rights

This bill proposes to remedy the historical exclusion of domestic workers from federal and state labor laws by providing these workers with the same basic protections afforded other workers under New York State law.

The legislation – the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights – would establish basic labor standards: an eight hour work day; overtime pay; one day off a week; paid vacation, holiday, and sick days; advance written notice of termination; the right to organize and bargain collectively; and a means to enforce these rights in court.

The New York Civil Liberties Union strongly supports this legislation.

In New York State, there are approximately 200,000 housekeepers, nannies, and caregivers for the elderly who are employed in private homes. These 200,000 domestic workers generally work in isolation. They work long hours for low pay; they are subject to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. According to a study by Domestic Workers United and Datacenter, 26% of surveyed domestic workers earn wages below either the poverty line or the minimum wage rate.

Although 50% percent work overtime (often more than 50-60 hours a week), 67% percent report not receiving overtime pay. Thirty-three percent have reported verbal or physical abuse, with approximately a third of those who face abuse reporting that it is based on their race and immigration status. Nine out of ten do not receive health insurance from their employers, and one third of those surveyed reported not being able to afford necessary medical care for themselves and their families.

Domestic workers and farm workers are among the few categories of workers who are excluded from basic protections provided under national and state labor laws. The specific exclusion of domestic and farm workers is a relic of the 1930s New Deal period when the Roosevelt administration won major reforms to protect workers’ rights – but in exchange for the exclusion of what was at the time primarily southern black labor (that is, farm and domestic workers) to appease segregationist Southern Democrats.

Now, some seventy years later, this legacy of the Jim Crow era persists. The denial of basic labor rights under existing law serves to perpetuate racial discrimination – 95% of domestic workers are people of color. However, the demographics of this group of workers has shifted since the 1930s, and this discrimination now affects a new generation of domestic workers in New York – 93% of whom are women and 99% of whom are foreign-born.

To deny domestic workers the rights and protections afforded other employees is a violation of universal human rights principles, which recognize that all persons are entitled to basic labor protections: the right to fair wages; rest and leisure; reasonable limitations on working hours; periodic holidays with pay; and security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood or other such circumstances beyond one’s control.

In the attempt to remedy the injustice faced by New York’s domestic workers, the state’s legislature is presented with two competing bills: Assembly bill 1470 and Senate bill 2311-D. Both bills contain minimum labor protections, such as overtime pay, a day of rest, recognition under the state’s Human Rights Law, the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining, and the inclusion of part-time workers under the state’s disability law.

But of the two bills, the NYCLU believes that S.2311-D more effectively protects the rights of domestic workers and sets them on equal footing with other categories of workers. This bill provides domestic workers with a certain amount of paid holidays, sick days, and vacation days, as well as 21 days notice prior to termination – provisions that are necessary to ensure that the rights of domestic workers are fully protected.

If enacted, S.2311-D would abolish a legally sanctioned form of discrimination that has deprived domestic workers the basic protections that have been afforded other workers for nearly a century. The NYCLU strongly supports S.2311-D, and recommends that the Assembly version of this bill be amended to match the Senate version.

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