Domestic workers are excluded from the right to bargain collectively under the NLRA. Like farmworkers, they were originally excluded from minimum wage and overtime laws in an effort to win Southern votes in favor of New Deal legislation. Home health care workers are still excluded from both the minimum wage and overtime laws, and all live-in domestic workers are excluded from overtime pay under federal law.
Demographics. At least 1.8 million workers work as domestic workers in American homes. Domestic work includes at least three occupations: cleaning, child care, and caring for the elderly and the disabled. Most of these workers (95 percent) are female, foreign born and/or persons of color.
Wages and Hours. In 2005, the wages for in-home workers were one-half the national median income. A survey of workers in New York found that 41 percent of these workers earn low wages, with an additional 26 percent earning below poverty-level wages. Half of the workers have overtime hours each week, with a substantial number working 50-60 hours per week. Of these, 67 percent do not receive overtime pay.
Health and Safety. A 2007 survey of domestic workers in the San Francisco Bay Area found that 63 percent of domestic workers consider their jobs hazardous, citing concentrated exposure to toxic cleaning chemicals and human contagions, risk of injury from cleaning high or difficult-to-reach places, and heavy lifting, yet there are no health and safety protections for domestic workers.
Benefits. Nationally, just 13 percent of in-home workers who employed at least half time, year round get health insurance provided by their employers.
Forms of Work. Domestic work encompasses at least two forms of work: direct hire by householders and referrals through agencies, with some of the work occurring outside the home. Some workers work for one employer, while others piece together many jobs under multiple employers. Industry differences also exist between the private pay market and the government-subsidized market, which supports some child care and home health care work.
Compliance with Labor Laws. A recent survey of low-wage workers in three major US cities—New York, Chicago and Los Angeles—found that 41 percent of workers in private households had suffered violations of the minimum-wage law in the week prior to the survey. Child care workers endured the highest rate of violations of their rights, at 66.3 percent. Twenty-nine–and-a-half percent of maids and housekeepers were not paid the minimum wage, and 17.5 percent of home health care workers endured minimum-wage violations. These workers also suffered high rates of overtime violations, with more than 90 percent of child care workers and 82.7 percent of home health care workers experiencing violations.
Legal Context. As previously noted, home health-care workers are completely exempt from the FLSA under an outdated "companion" exemption. Live-in domestic workers are also excluded from overtime under the FLSA. Similarly, domestic workers are exempt from the NLRA, which guarantees workers the right to organize and to bargain collectively. OSHA regulations also exclude domestic workers from protection. Coverage for domestic workers under workers' compensation laws is voluntary for employers in more than half the states: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. In some other states, coverage applies only to full-time domestic workers, only to those who employ several workers, or only after a dollar threshold of wages is paid to the worker.
Projected Growth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects personal and home-care aide jobs to increase 50 percent from 2008-2018, and home health aide jobs to increase by 50 percent in that time frame. The total number of Americans in need of long-term care is expected to rise from 13 million in 2000 to 27 million in 2050, an increase of more than 100 percent. The most significant factor increasing demand for long-term care will be the growth of the elderly population, which is expected to rise from 8 million in 2000 to 19 million in 2050.
Slavery, Forced Labor and Involuntary Servitude. Although it is impossible to calculate how many domestic workers in the United States are subject to forms of slavery and servitude, experts told a New York Times reporter that one-third of the some 15,000 to 20,000 victims of labor trafficking in the United States annually are migrant domestic servants. That article recounted the pending prosecution on Long Island of the employers of two Indonesian women. The employers allegedly made the women sleep in closets of their multi-million-dollar home, forced them to work day and night, deprived them of food, threatened, tortured and beat them, and forbade them to leave the home. Four other recent cases involve the wife of a Saudi prince, who was convicted in Boston for keeping two house servants for three years in virtual slavery; two Wisconsin doctors, who held a Filipina woman as an indentured servant for 20 years; a Maryland couple, who kept a Brazilian woman in their home as a servant for 15 years, paying her nothing; and finally a California real estate agent who enslaved a Peruvian nanny in her home after luring her to the United States with false promises. In addition, many domestic workers who migrate with an agreement from their employer or through agencies live and work under virtual debt-bondage in order to pay back exorbitant fees they owe for the contract.
Photo Courtesy of Domestic Workers United
My name is Beatriz Garayalde. I'm from Uruguay and I'm a member of Domestic Workers United in New York. I took a job at one employer's home after they insisted for months, convincing me of the many advantages I would have, that I was the right person, and that they couldn't think of anyone else to take care of their children. Many of the promises dissolved the day I arrived. The pay was low and was issued only once a month. I didn't have any hours or days off, holidays, nothing. I don't think I slept at all during the first three months. I stayed in the room with the children. My only real sleep was between 7 a.m., when the parents came to my room for the children, until 9 a.m., when I went back to work. After getting up, I'd wet my head and stick it out of the window in the dead of winter so I could stay awake. And if I managed to sleep some at night, my brain would be still be alert, listening to the children's breathing. During the day, I'd do my chores, cook, clean and take care of the children — months passed like this, working day and night — I forgot that I was a person, only looking after the children and the housework.
I loved those children (and still do) and so I put up with the long hours and low pay. I was isolated; I didn't speak with anyone. I started to fear people on the street, in the parks. When I started asking for time off, I got fired. It was very sad separating from the children and trying to understand how the employers had seen in me the potential for cheap labor.
When one lives and works in a home, not having any other place to go, this creates the perfect condition for abuse to happen in many cases. Employers are unclear about their legal and ethical responsibilities. We make it possible for New Yorkers to work and have personal time because their children, elderly, homes and pets are taken care of and in good hands.
For these reasons, Domestic Workers United fights so that our work is recognized as real work. Working with children is care work that's carried out under constant pressure. We are responsible for other human lives.
Clearly, we need justice. We need laws that protect us (regardless of whether or not we're documented). Domestic workers represent a hidden labor force that will remain so while there are no laws to regulate it and bring it to the forefront. We have to recognize the importance of this work — which fuels the economy. As we say in DWU, "We have a dream that one day all work will be valued equally."