A long fight for employment protections for domestic workers

Ania Jakubek, an organizer with Arise Chicago, helped pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which goes into effect Jan. 1.

Photo by Sebastian Hidalgo

Ania Jakubek, an organizer with Arise Chicago, helped pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which goes into effect Jan. 1.

America’s domestic workers have been locked out of protections secured by the U.S. labor movement ever since the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938. While millions of Americans benefited from the 40-hour workweek, minimum wage and overtime standards, domestic workers were intentionally excluded. President Franklin D. Roosevelt cut a deal in 1935 with Southern states to exclude this class of workers. Three years later that exclusion was mirrored in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Most blacks in the South worked as farm laborers or domestics. (Historically, female slaves and indentured servants performed domestic duties.)

Today, domestic work has become largely the domain of immigrants and women of color. According to a 2012 report by the University of Illinois at Chicago, 54 percent of domestic workers were Hispanic, African-American, Asian or Pacific Islander.

“We are [still] talking about inequality and race issues,” said Ania Jakubek, an organizer with Arise Chicago, a workers’ rights center.

Illinois became only the seventh state to address this holdover from America’s past this summer when Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.  The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, gives Illinois’ 35,000 nannies, housecleaners and caregivers many of the same employment protections as other Americans working 9-to-5 jobs. It amends four state laws – including those regarding the minimum wage and one day’s rest in seven – to include domestic workers.

Jakubek, who organizes Polish and Latino domestic workers, spoke with The Chicago Reporter about the law.

What are the major victories in this law?

What we wanted was at least minimum wage for domestic workers, mandatory day off per week. Right now we have domestic workers working seven days and they weren’t required to have a day off because they were excluded from that. Also an important part [were protections against] sexual [harassment], discrimination. … We require now, especially for live-in workers, that employers will give [time to move out of the home].  So they cannot be, ‘I am firing [you] today’ and then you have no place to live. If you are working on a live-in basis, you need to have your space to sleep. We have domestic workers sleeping on the floor and in a garage space or in a hallway, sleeping in the basement or closet. They are horrifying stories. We wanted to meet the basic needs of the people. We require contracts with employers. Maybe 10 percent of domestic workers have contracts.

How do you feel now that the bill has passed after a five-year campaign?

I feel like people are not aware that this law exists. I know because when we were lobbying for it, some of [the legislators] couldn’t believe [domestic workers] are excluded from the minimum wage. I feel like people do not know that there are laws right now that exclude a certain industry of workers that are mostly women like domestic workers. How can we talk in 2016 about feminist rights [when] domestic workers, 95 percent of whom are women, are excluded from basic labor protections? They are excluded from sexual harassment [laws] in the workplace. I am not talking about rape. I am talking about employers who … make comments about your body while you clean … [and in one case] an employer’s son was naked from the waist down.

Do you think such protections should be enacted across the U.S.?

Domestic work is work. So why can’t we have the same rights like other occupations and other industries? But now, looking back, this is a very race-based law. It has changed its face over the course of 75 years, but the real reason why it is that way is because it’s racial. It is minorities and immigrants.

Will employers be receptive to the new law?

We have employers running stores and companies still having wage theft issues or stuff that they shouldn’t do, like discrimination. So it is going to happen and it is going to happen more [in this field of work] than anywhere else because of the specifics of the job. But at least we have a point to start. People are still going to be paid under the table and some people won’t pay taxes but … now we finally have the law in place to [hold employers accountable]. We are going to do an education campaign for employers because they don’t know this law exists.

How will it be enforced? Where can domestic workers file complaints?

They can go to the [state] Department of Labor or file in small claims court. But we always encourage negotiations, through a mediator, between employer and employee to save time and money. There are options that weren’t open before and they are open now. They are also now able to file to the EEOC for discrimination, sexual harassment and human rights in the workplace.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.