Thursday, August 30, 2012

Abuse With Benefits for Domestics in Liberal California

California’s legislature will be voting this week on a piece of legislation (AB 889), dubbed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which was authored by San Francisco Democrat Tom Ammiano and Oakland assemblywoman Fiona Ma. The new law would allow nannies, maids, home health care workers and other full-time domestic workers to cook their own meals in their employers’ kitchens and entitle them to the same overtime pay, guaranteed breaks, sick leave and workers compensation privileges already granted to most other workers.

These are certainly important new protections that these workers have been denied up until now. According to a report by the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, 90% of the domestic workforce (93% of whom are female) has never received overtime pay. Over 90% reported having their meal breaks cut short or denied entirely. 75% of the child care workers and 35% of the housekeepers in Los Angeles County were paid less than the minimum wage. Domestic workers are also often subjected to physical and verbal abuse, in addition to the long hours and low pay.

However, even with these changes, domestic workers will remain among the poorest paid workers in the state.

The new law says very little about a reasonable living wage. What it says is vague: “The Department of Industrial Relations may (emphasis added by Modern School) apply the provisions of Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order 15 to domestic work employees.”  Wage Order 15 calls for the state minimum wage to be paid to workers covered by the law. AB 889 would include domestic workers under Wage Order 15 and, according to the wording, “may” require they be paid the state minimum. However, even if the state requires the current minimum wage of $8.00 per hour, domestic workers would still not be earning enough to support a family with any sort of material security or wellbeing.

Attempts to increase the rights and privileges of domestic workers has traditionally been opposed by private health care and homecare organizations, as well as some disability and seniors’ rights groups, out of fear that such rights would impact their bottom lines (in the case of the healthcare organizations) or reduce the quality of their care (in the case of disabled people and seniors).

Both of these perspectives are absurd. Private businesses can (and do) make handsome profits without violating labor laws. AB 889 would merely extend existing labor protections to domestic workers.

The wellbeing of seniors, disabled people, children and others who depend on the services of domestic workers, of course, should be a significant concern. Many of these are private employers of domestic workers and, at the same time, many are also living on minimal fixed incomes. Yet this should not entitle them to deny their employees basic workplace rights or pay them so little. Rather, like most social services, the state needs to dramatically increase taxes on the wealthy and their businesses to generate sufficient revenue to provide generous domestic services to everyone who needs it AND generously compensate those who do this work.

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