“The Help” Gets Its Due
New laws mean domestic workers finally have to be treated like other employees.
The law brings other dignifying elements to a difficult line of work. Domestic employees must now have one day off every week or be paid overtime if they agree to work that day; a 20-minute break after working at least six hours in a row; and, after they’ve been employed for a year, three paid vacation days annually. Families that employ full-time workers are even responsible for paying unemployment and workers-compensation taxes.
And while the specific terms of employment used to be laid out in casual conversations, if at all, they now have to be put into writing. So people who hire nannies and other in-home workers not only have to be clear about their hourly rates; they have to document them along with their policies on sick leave, vacation, personal leave, and holidays. Employers are also obligated to write up weekly wage statements. If they don’t, they can face a fine of $50 per missed week. Through a separate law that went into effect in April, employers can also be fined $10,000 for each instance of retaliation against employees or former employees who file complaints.
In short, people who hire domestic workers now have to behave like regular employers. This has been a shocking change for some bosses, particularly those who become the subjects of complaints. The challenge of the new law is to nudge what has been an informal and intimate arrangement, with all of the good and bad things that entails, toward being a plain, old job. “People aren’t going to be able to treat their domestic worker as another family member who’s taking care of their kids anymore,” says Hallett. “It’s going to have to be a much clearer relationship.”
Though it’s hard to educate such a disparate workforce and many are still too fearful to take advantage of the law, the transition to a new domestic order is clearly under way. “Since the law passed, the number of inquiries we’ve gotten from workers has increased tenfold,” says Priscilla Gonzalez, the executive director of Domestic Workers United, an advocacy organization for New York’s nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for the elderly. Of the complaints that proceed to the legal clinic, employers settle some 80 percent rather than going to court or before the state Department of Labor.
The new surge of effort to improve the lot of domestic workers comes as their ranks swell, a phenomenon experts attribute to both the growth of income inequality and the aging of the population. The proposed federal guidelines would apply to 2 million domestic workers employed by agencies throughout the country who, through a strange legal glitch, have been exempted from overtime and minimum wage protections.
Many owners of home care agencies oppose the changes, insisting that they would be forced to pass cost increases brought by the new regulations on to their clients. Similar arguments were used to successfully fight three past attempts to bring basic labor protections to these workers. Domestic workers and their advocates insist that any costs should be absorbed by the agencies. And, though the comment period on the federal regulations doesn’t end until March 12, this time, it looks like home care workers may win the day.*
Correction, Feb. 23, 2012: This piece originally misstated when the comment period for the federal regulations end. Because the period was recently extended, it will end March 12, not Feb. 27. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Sharon Lerner is a senior fellow at Demos and the author of The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation. Follow her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.