Lizeth Palencia had worked for a family on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for almost two years when she was fired last February. The slight woman with a long braid hanging down her back and a Guatemalan accent says she had been hired to work from 9 to 6, five days a week, picking up after the family’s three children, making their beds, “finding their cellphone chargers if they couldn’t find them, whatever they needed.” She didn’t have to cook—the live-in housekeeper did that—and a driver took the children to school. Still, she was busy.
Palencia says her employer frequently asked her to stay late, though she refused to pay extra for those hours. After she left that job and a lawyer filed a complaint on her behalf with the New York State Department of Labor, Palencia claims, her former employer tried to have her fired from her new position.
Palencia, whose case is still pending, wouldn’t be the first domestic worker to be treated poorly by her employers. Such is too often the lot of people who toil within homes. For a long time, such mistreatment went unpunished.
But now the largely female, immigrant workforce seems on the verge of getting their due. In November of 2010, New York state’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights—the first such law in the nation—went into effect, giving some 200,000 nannies, health aides, housekeepers, private cooks, and other at-home workers considerable power to address the poor conditions they often encounter in their unusual workplaces. Around the same time, the Urban Justice Center began holding a monthly legal clinic to help domestic workers file complaints. And the state Department of Labor started prioritizing their claims, according to lawyers who file them. (The New York State Department of Labor did not respond to inquiries.) The uptick of attention to domestic workers’ cases filed both before and after the new law went into effect has already resulted in dozens of domestic workers collecting awards of back pay and penalties ranging from $5,000 to $100,000.
The trend toward better treatment of domestic workers goes beyond New York. In December, the Obama administration proposed new federal regulations that would give home care workers employed through agencies new protections. In California, a bill of rights similar to New York’s is pending. Meanwhile, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an advocacy group that now has 35 local affiliates around the country, is trying to ride—and perhaps push—the wave with a visibility campaign organized around the movie The Help.
In New York, the biggest changes involve overtime. Before the law, the highest overtime anyone was required to pay was one-and-a-half times minimum wage—or $10.88 per hour. Now, anyone directly employed within the home is entitled to pay at one-and-a-half times their hourly rate if they work more than 40 hours in a week. (For live-in domestic workers, overtime pay starts after 44 hours.)
“Overtime violations are rampant,” says Nicole Hallett, one of several attorneys who staff the Urban Justice Center’s free, monthly legal clinic. Hallett notes the problem is worst among live-in employees, who make up 30 percent of the domestic workforce. “I have yet to see a live-in worker who’s being paid overtime at the correct rate.”