Philadelphia seems poised to become the largest city in America to pass legislation aimed at protecting domestic workers such as nannies and house cleaners, whose positions are in many cases excluded from existing labor laws.

Domestic workers, sometimes called “the original gig workers,” often have multiple employers and little recourse for mistreatment, abuse, or underpayment. A bill to be introduced Thursday in City Council by Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez aims to address that.

Advocates who have campaigned for months in the hope of passing a bill this year say Philadelphia’s domestic-worker legislation is one of the most ambitious in the country, and it already has significant support among Council members, as well as Mayor Jim Kenney.

Here’s a closer look at the legislation.

Who are domestic workers and what laws apply to them now?

The category includes in-home workers, such as caretakers, nannies and house cleaners, of whom there are at least 16,000 in Philadelphia. These workers are disproportionately women of color, and many are undocumented immigrants. Their employers are typically individuals and families without payroll systems and HR departments.

Whom it doesn’t include, according to the bill: any individual who is working on a “casual” basis. That definition is still being worked out, and will likely be a point of contention when a hearing on the legislation takes place this year. It also doesn’t include “life partners” or relatives.

Currently, domestic workers are barred from unionizing under the National Labor Relations Act and are carved out of some overtime protections in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Many domestic workers have no health insurance and no way to accrue sick days or paid time off.

How would this new legislation address that?

Some of the major tenets of the proposed law:

  • Workers are entitled to up to five days of paid time off (PTO). The PTO will likely be a tiered system based on time worked, so someone who works 30 hours a week would accrue more PTO than someone who works 10.
  • Employers must use a contract to specify hours, pay rates, schedules, holidays, and other employment terms.
  • Workers are guaranteed paid rest and meal breaks (a 10-minute rest break for every four hours worked consecutively and a 30-minute meal break after more than five hours). Live-in workers such as nannies and caregivers are guaranteed one unpaid day off after working six consecutive days.
  • The city will create a “portable benefits” system for workers’ hours to follow them, not the employer, meaning those with multiple employers can still accrue enough hours to qualify for paid time off.
  • A Domestic Work Working Group, which will meet this summer, will develop a proposal for a Domestic Worker Standards and Implementation Board to monitor enforcement and regulation.
  • Employers must provide two weeks’ notice before terminating an employment contract (four weeks if the worker is live-in), except in cases of “significant misconduct.”

Is the legislation likely to pass?

Yes (though much can change before its passage). Five Council members appeared at a news conference Thursday morning in support of the legislation, and those who organized in favor of it say they’ve received verbal support from a majority of the 17-member legislative body. Rich Lazer, the deputy mayor of labor, said Kenney’s administration supports the bill and has called the legislation “a foundational step towards moving the needle of poverty in the city.”

Where else do these protections exist?

Nine states — New Mexico, New York, Hawaii, Connecticut, California, Illinois, Nevada, Massachusetts and Oregon — and the City of Seattle have passed legislation to protect domestic workers in one way or another. A nationwide campaign to enact labor protections for these workers was buoyed over the last year by the rising profile of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, as well as the support of Hollywood and the awareness raised by the Oscar-winning film Roma, about a domestic worker.

Seattle is seen as having the strongest law, and advocates in Philadelphia hope to become on par with it, said Nicole Kligerman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance.

How is Philly’s proposed law different?

The “portable benefits” system is a novel idea, especially that it would be required by law. Kligerman said it would be up to the summer working group and the enforcement board to figure out the best way to ensure employers and workers know how to track hours and PTO accrual. (There is already an app for that.)

Maria Del Carmen Diaz, a professional house cleaner, shown here in her home near Girard College in Philadelphia on Dec. 31, 2018.
TNS
Maria Del Carmen Diaz, a professional house cleaner, shown here in her home near Girard College in Philadelphia on Dec. 31, 2018.

Kligerman said the other “landmark” tenet in Philadelphia’s legislation is the establishment of the enforcement board itself. Only Seattle has such a board, and she said it was critical to workers that they be involved in establishing an enforcement mechanism from the get-go. She also said she expects the board to create “template contracts” for workers, and if an individual doesn’t have a contract, it will be presumed they’re working under the city’s template of minimum terms.

Also, there are no minimum wage or overtime wage protections due to state laws that bar Philadelphia from setting its own city minimum wage.

I employ a babysitter, nanny, caregiver, or house cleaner. What would this mean for me?

It depends. One of the big outstanding questions is what constitutes “casual” employment, so depending how many hours a person works for you, there’s a chance you could be exempt. But if you’re not, failure to comply with the law could expose you to a fine of up to $2,000 per violation. Any employer who takes retaliatory action against a worker for filing a claim would face further penalties.

What’s unclear is how this would be enforced, or if the city would have to rely on individual reports of violations. Lazer said he anticipates his office adding employees in the coming year to increase enforcement of this legislation (should it pass) and other worker protection laws passed under Kenney’s administration.

What’s the next step?

There will likely be hearings held this fall, and advocates hope the bill will pass Council and be signed by Kenney by the end of this year. In addition, the Domestic Work Working Group will meet this summer to hammer out the details, including how the city will educate workers on their rights and thousands of employers on their responsibilities.