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Domestic Workers Aren’t Protected by Anti-Discrimination Law. This New Bill Would Change That

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For 16 years, June Barrett was a certified nurse assistant in Miami. For up to five years at a time, she lived in the homes of the elderly patients she cared for — waking up at 4 a.m., staying on her feet until 11 p.m., and sleeping next to a buzzer so she could be on call around the clock. As a live-in caregiver, she got “maybe two or three hours of sleep” each night.

In 2014, one of her patients was an elderly man who was “constantly grabbing my breasts, constantly,” she recalled.

But she could not afford to leave until she found another job. “I had to choose between my rent and my medication at that time,” she said, recalling that she continued to work there for several months.

Barrett remembers calling her twin sister, who is also a certified nurse assistant. “I stood at the window like a child, I was crying,” she said. “And I remember I didn’t know what to do … I did not know who to turn to.”

For decades, domestic workers — including house cleaners, nannies, and home care workers — have been excluded from civil rights protections against workplace sexual harassment and discrimination because the law does not apply to employers who have fewer than 15 employees.

Barrett and the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) want to change that.

On Monday, in partnership with the NDWA, Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Pramila Jayapal will introduce the National Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. The proposed legislation would close the loophole, extending civil rights protections against sexual harassment and racial discrimination to house cleaners, nannies and home care workers like Barrett.

In 2012, there were nearly 2 million domestic workers in the United States, and more than 90 percent of live-in workers were women.

Under the bill of rights, domestic workers “would now enjoy the protection that other workers in the workforce are enjoying,” said Jacqui Orie of Yonkers, N.Y., who has been a nanny for 19 years. “Because we are the ones that make all of the work possible. We allow our employers to go to work, and to work with a clear mind, to work knowing that your loved ones, your elderly parents have been taken care of.”

The proposed measures include a hotline; an interagency task force involving the Labor Department, Health and Human Services, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; new grants for sector-wide training programs; a wage and standards board; and a funding provision to cover additional costs that Medicaid-funded consumers may face as a result of this bill. And while the cost is unknown, “what we have to look at is the cost of not providing these basic civil rights protections to what is now one of the fastest growing workforces in the country,” said Jayapal. “It underpins our economy.”

As the baby boomer population gets older, the need for home care workers and personal care aides is only expected to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that there will be 1.2 million more home health jobs in 2026 than there were in 2016.

“Care jobs are the future, and we need to make sure that there are good jobs,” Barrett said. “Investing in quality jobs means that all people can access the care that they deserve, including those who care for others.”

But so far, only nine states (New York, Illinois, Oregon, California, Nevada, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Hawaii and New Mexico) and the city of Seattle have passed bills of rights for domestic workers.

And in the remaining 41 states, domestic workers do not have workplace civil rights protections to protect them from racial discrimination.

Barrett recalled that one elderly woman had told her, “Take your cotton-picking self out of this room, you n-word” — referring to the room that her own daughter had told Barrett to move into. So Barrett moved her bags to the study, where she slept on a settee, with her feet dangling over the edge, for the next five and a half years.

Later, another client “constantly called me the n-word,” Barrett said. “And she even told me to go to the shop and buy Clorox, several bottles, put them in a bathtub and immerse myself in it, ‘because you are that black.’”

According to the NDWA, more than half of all domestic workers are women of color. But domestic workers are currently not covered by the civil rights protections that prevent workplace discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

Barrett, 55, had first started working as a caregiver in Jamaica when she was 14 years old. She immigrated to the United States in 2001 and worked as a nanny in Basking Ridge, N.J., before moving to Miami, where she became a CNA in 2003.

At her first live-in job, Barrett didn’t have a written contract. “They refused to give me a deal,” she said. “And at that time, I thought it was OK. Because I didn’t know, you know — that it’s not OK.”

In a 2018 survey of domestic workers, less than 10 percent reported having written contracts.

On average, home care workers make approximately $24,000 a year. Certified nurse assistants like Barrett can have responsibilities that include cooking, laundry, driving patients to doctor’s appointments, assisting with medication, helping physically disabled patients to bathe or shower and changing catheters and adult diapers. In addition to physical ailments, many elderly patients suffer from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

“There are some clients who are totally dependent on you,” Barrett said. “When they get to the doctor’s office, the doctors do not want to see the family, they’re always like, ‘call the caregivers to come in,’ because you spend so much time with that person.”

Yet despite their indispensability, without written employment contracts, home care workers often find that their wages are delayed or missing. Barrett remembered “not getting paid on time, not getting the correct amount of money that you’re supposed to get.” Orie recalled working more than 40 hours a week but not getting paid time-and-a-half for overtime.

In the 1930s, New Deal reforms including the Social Security Act and National Labor Relations Act excluded domestic and agricultural workers at the insistence of white Southern Democrats.

The new Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights aims to close the longstanding gap by setting a standard for written employment agreements, as well as guaranteeing paid sick leave and overtime pay for domestic workers, who often work longer hours.

The legislation also includes safety and health protections for live-in workers. “Sexual harassment and lack of safety on the job are the rule rather than the exception,” Barrett said. “It’s difficult, because some caregivers, they are so used to the abuse that they don’t see a way out.”

She recalled that on one Friday morning, her former patient had “reached over and literally touched my breast” in front of his daughter. “And she laughed about it,” Barrett said. “And then I realized, I can’t turn to the family. I was alone in that struggle until I was able to get out of that situation.”

In Orie’s conversations with other nannies at the playground, she kept “hearing all of the exploitation that was happening to workers like myself, and I didn’t know what to do, we didn’t know where to turn,” she said. “The National Domestic Workers Alliance met me at a playground.”

Both Orie and Barrett have turned to organizing and advocacy. Orie continues to work as a nanny in Lower Manhattan, volunteering with the NDWA in her spare time, spreading the word at local playgrounds. Barrett recently transitioned to a full-time, two-year fellowship as an organizer with the NDWA.

Jayapal praised the work of NDWA activists. “Ultimately what is so powerful is these voices that are courageous, that are resilient, even while being survivors of sexual harassment or these terrible conditions,” she said.

“We are stronger in numbers,” Barrett said. “I’m consumed right now, in talking to women who do this work, and to get them to realize that it’s important that we come together and organize to create the change that we want to be.”

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