Protecting Domestic Workers

The people who take care of society’s most vulnerable (the disabled, elderly, and children) are in fact the people most vulnerable themselves to labor abuses. According to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, 23% of domestic workers are paid below minimum wage. Furthermore, these workers often fear employer violence (42%) and other forms of abuse, especially if they are live-in.

The NDWA has been instrumental in collecting data on domestic workers. In 2010, they released results from a groundbreaking survey on domestic workers in America. This is what they found:

  • Domestic workers earn substandard pay, and enjoy little economic mobility or financial security.
  • Formal employment contracts are rare in the domestic work industry, and where work agreements do exist, employers frequently violate them.
  • Employers think of their homes as safe, yet domestic work can be hazardous.
  • Domestic workers who encounter problems frequently feel too vulnerable to stand up for themselves, especially live-in workers and undocumented immigrants.

States like New York have been ahead of the curve in protecting domestic workers rights. In 2010 NY passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The rights provided include:

  • Overtime pay for those that work more than 40 hours a week
  • One day of rest every 7 days
  • Coverage under NYS Harassment Laws for those subjected to harassment because of gender, sex, race, religion, or national origin

The income of domestic workers is estimated to be, on average, $17,000 annually. Many domestic workers also rely on some form of public assistance to get by. Their low pay is often attributed to their exclusion from minimum wage requirements and overtime rules. Recently the U.S. Department of Labor “updated the definition of “companion” so that people who are doing this work can be protected by those same wage and hour protections.”

Ai-Jen Poo, a domestic workers’ organizer and recipient of a 2014 MacArthur fellow award for her work, states plainly the moral imperative behind paying domestic workers a fair wage and granting them legal protections.

“I met women who do this work who seemed to me to be the unsung heroes of this country and of our economy. What more important work could there be in a healthy society? And yet we so undervalue it. So I was moved by how important the work was and how important the people who took care of me were.”