Maria Del Carmen Diaz works full time, often pulling 60-hour weeks cleaning houses across Philadelphia for more than two dozen families. Still, she doesn’t get paid time off — or health care or retirement benefits — through her employers.

That’s about to change, at least in Philadelphia. The city’s Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, unanimously passed by City Council on Oct. 31 and expected to be signed into law, will launch a “portable benefits” system for domestic workers such as Diaz.

In principle, experts say, the idea of tying benefits to the worker instead of the employer could be adapted to help tens of thousands of Philadelphians working for multiple employers. And what happens here could be a model for millions of American workers without adequate access to benefits because they are subcontractors or juggling multiple part-time jobs or driving for Uber to supplement their income — so-called nontraditional work arrangements that have become increasingly common and prominent.

“It’s unprecedented and groundbreaking for domestic workers,” said Mariana Viturro, deputy director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, “and it can be a precedent for other workers who work in similar arrangements.”

The move to empower domestic workers is seen as another example of Philadelphia, the nation’s poorest large city, being on the vanguard of passing legislation to protect low-wage workers — despite the concerns of business groups that call these policies an overreach. The first so-called portable benefits system for paid time off in the country comes at a time when the “future of work” is getting increasing attention, from Silicon Valley employers to think tanks.

“There’s a growing recognition that the safety net of the last century just doesn’t match the state of work today,” said Shelly Steward, research manager of the Aspen Institute’s Future of Work initiative. “Portable benefits are part of the conversation about how we can change that.”

The potential impact

It’s hard to pinpoint the size of the gig economy, where an increasing share of the workforce is dependent on multiple, temporary “gigs” for livelihood. In 2017, about 10.6 million Americans, or nearly 7 percent of total employment, considered “independent contractor” their main job, according to federal data.

But that’s likely a conservative estimate, as it doesn’t account for people who make their living with a mix of traditional employment and freelance work, or multiple jobs, such as a retail worker who also works at an Amazon warehouse.

Mercedes Reyes (center), a live-in domestic worker and leader with the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance, hugs City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, after Council passed a bill expanding labor protections for domestic workers. At left is Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance director Nicole Kligerman.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Mercedes Reyes (center), a live-in domestic worker and leader with the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance, hugs City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, after Council passed a bill expanding labor protections for domestic workers. At left is Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance director Nicole Kligerman.

Regardless, portable benefits systems have the potential to affect the lives of millions, according to the Aspen Institute, a think tank that has advocated for the creation of portable benefits systems.

In Philadelphia, the provision will grant paid time off to 16,000 domestic workers — a number that’s expected to continue to grow. In 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that nearly 12% of all new job openings in the next decade will be based inside a home, including nannies, cleaners, and home health aides.

“Domestic work, in many ways, is the future of work,” Aspen Institute’s Steward said.

How it will work in Philly

Much of the details will get hammered out in the coming months, with help from a standards board made up of workers, employers, and lawyers, but the gist is that each employer will contribute a prorated amount to a worker’s fund based on what the worker is paid. It’s expected to be a 2.5% increase in costs for the employer, the Mayor’s Office of Labor said.

Workers will accrue one hour per 40 hours worked, similar to the city’s paid sick leave law, which doesn’t cover independent contractors or workers employed by companies of 10 or fewer employees. And if the nanny or house cleaner stops working for a certain family, that person still gets to keep the paid time off that has been accrued.

To get around a state preemption law, which bars Philadelphia from mandating that employers pay their workers more, the paid time off is being described as a benefit — not a bonus, said Amanda Shimko, who runs enforcement for the Mayor’s Office of Labor. Paid sick laws, too, have bypassed preemption concerns.

Though the city plans to begin enforcing the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights next May, the portable benefits system will take longer because the city has to purchase the system and hire a contractor that will run and manage it. The National Domestic Workers Alliance, which has worked to get domestic worker laws passed across the country, runs a system called Alia that is live across the country and plans on applying to the city’s forthcoming request for proposals, Viturro said.

Ease of use is important, Steward said, because opting in can be an obstacle. If it involves complex paperwork or going to a government office, that’ll prove a serious hurdle to adoption, especially for undocumented immigrant workers who fear being targeted by immigration enforcement.

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Enforcement — a major component of the effectiveness of the law — will be complaint-based and require education of both employers and workers. It’s something the Mayor’s Office of Labor has historically struggled with: In 2018, the office resolved nine paid sick leave investigations, while Seattle’s office, considered a national leader in enforcement, resolved nearly 80.

But in the last six months, in response to a push from advocates, the office has grown its staff to increase enforcement and education around all of its worker protection laws, including paid sick and the forthcoming Fair Workweek scheduling law for service workers,

The adoption of a portable benefits system is the latest in a trend of Philadelphia leading a national fight to expand worker protection laws. It’s the second biggest city in the country to pass a Fair Workweek law. It was the first city in the country to pass a “just-cause” law against unfair firings. The District Attorney’s Office recently launched a unit to prosecute employers for crimes against workers.

Rich Lazer, deputy mayor of labor, said the portable benefits system is another show of how serious Philadelphia takes worker protection legislation. Still, the city has been criticized by business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia, for meddling where these groups say government shouldn’t: Leave it to the human-resources departments, Chamber CEO Rob Wonderling has said.

Lazer disagreed, saying that the city has a role to play in making sure workers are not being mistreated.

“Some of the stories we’ve heard ... what [these workers] have to deal with every day, and they have nowhere to go to get help,” he said. “That’s why the city steps in.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.