She couldn’t stop for lunch, or even take a short break.
At the $4 an hour-the most that she was paid to clean houses-Maria Lima, a Brazilian immigrant, had to take a second job tending bar for four nights a week in order provide for her two children.
“Those wages weren’t enough to support my family,” says Lima, who came to the U.S. eight years ago.
She can claim wage theft-a practice known to target immigrant laborers-but Lima has a slew of other problems that come with being a domestic worker. Home healthcare workers, nannies, and cleaning personnel fall into a segment of the working population that got the raw end of FDR’s Depression-era New Deal and have yet to reap many of the benefits of the labor regulations that left them behind more than 80 years ago.
Workers like Lima cannot seek government protection from non-criminal sexual harassment as part of an industry where-according to the Economic Policy Institute-more than 90 percent of employees are women. In Connecticut, it’s 97.9 percent.
They are not legally entitled to sick days, protection against employment discrimination, worker’s compensation, or the right to organize. The right to overtime payment is currently in legal limbo with a U.S. District Court judge’s blocking of a 2013 Obama Administration initiative.
“I came to this country with a dream to offer my kids a better future,” Lima says. “”Today I cry for having to be here in the 21st Century, asking for such basic rights.”
She’s sitting before the Board of Aldermen’s Human Services Committee. Last night they held a public hearing aimed at addressing that. The Committee voted unanimously to pass a resolution supporting a domestic workers task force in its efforts to establish a bill of rights for those employed in this industry.
“Working people in this country are losing ground,” said Alderman Adam Marchand. “It feels like we’re going back to the 19th Century. There are independent contractors, which means they don’t have collective bargaining rights. We see more categories of workers that don’t have the most basic protections, and we have to do something.”
Marchand does not sit on the Committee. He came to testify but filled in on the body because it did not have enough members present for a quorum. Alderman Darryl Brackeen Jr. is on the Committee, and he introduced the resolution.
“We can literally lead the nation in seeing this population of people come out into the light,” Brackeen Jr. said. “They want to contribute to society. This is our moment to go forward.”
And the resolution is not just symbolic-it precedes a push for state legislation establishing a domestic workers’ bill of rights and eliminating barriers to the labor rights guaranteed to those employed in other industries. Technically, a proposal is sitting up in Hartford now, but the Domestic Worker’s Task Force will be sending a more thorough version as early as “within the next week or so”, says James Alexander, a New Haven Legal Aid attorney who sits on the Task Force.
In the meantime, Yale Law student Nicole Hallett, who, as part of the Urban Justice Center, worked on establishing a domestic workers’ bill of rights in New York, has some suggestions. She noted that industry employees are not excluded from all labor regulation provisions.
“What all these [other] bills have tried to do is fill in the gaps,” Hallett said.
One is overtime payment. Guaranteeing that would provide multiple benefits to employees who are not only underpaid, but overworked, Hallett said.
“If employers have to pay overtime, it gives them reason not to hire them to work so many hours,” she said. “I rarely had a client that worked less than 60 hours a week, and I had many who worked 80 to 100 hours a week.”
Then there’s minimum wage. Although the industry is not excluded from those protections, workers who are undocumented might be more hesitant when it comes to filing a complaint.
“It could be paying less than minimum wage, not getting paid at all, or working hours off the clock,” Hallett said. “Either way it happens, the result is the same-hard working people don’t get paid what they are owed.”
Eleven percent of foreign-born women without a post-high school education work in the industry, according to the Economic Policy Institute. In Connecticut, 24 percent of domestic workers are non-naturalized immigrants, according to Institute data.
Nationally, a little more than 23 percent of domestic workers are below the poverty line-the highest percentage in any other occupation-according to the Institute.
“There’s legal context to this,” Alexander said. “These exclusions affect people in real ways.”
They weren’t accidental, either. New Deal labor legislation left out domestic and agricultural workers-those who occupied industries that, at the time, were predominately African American.
“It was a compromise with southern democrats to get the New Deal passed,” Hallett said.
The New Deal included the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandated overtime payment. Home Care domestic workers-classified as “companions”-were left out of that legislation until two years ago, when the President Barack Obama moved to expand it. A U.S. District judge blocked that initiative this year-it was supposed to take effect in 2015-so they are still still without that protection.
The New Deal-era National Labor Relations Act-or the right to organize-also excludes domestic workers. This is significant particularly because in-home employees tend to be more isolated than workers in other industries as it is, reform advocates say.
“Domestic workers are particularly vulnerable,” Hallett said. “They don’t have the ability to organize. The bill of rights could change this. It could give the workers the same rights other workers have.”