Lucy was cleaning a West Philadelphia home two years ago when a piece of debris hit her in the face and split her forehead. The 39-year-old mother probably should have seen a doctor.
But Lucy, a house cleaner who moved to North Philadelphia from Mexico a decade ago, didn’t have health insurance. So she treated the wound herself and crossed her fingers.
Lucy, who asked to be identified only by her first name to speak about her employers, works full time, but doesn’t have such benefits as insurance, vacation, or sick days. She has never worked under a contract, is forbidden by federal law from unionizing, and, if she were to speak up against an employer who mistreated her, has little protection from termination.
“The reality is that I haven’t spoken up,” Lucy said in Spanish through an interpreter, “and I just really have to put up with it, because the fear is really strong.”
As a “domestic worker” — a category that includes in-home workers, such as caretakers and nannies — Lucy has few protections under existing labor laws.
Philadelphia could soon become the largest city in the country to change that.
Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez plans this month to introduce a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, a bill that would address legal exemptions for domestic workers and their employers, said Andre Del Valle, a legislative aide to the councilwoman. The text of the legislation has not been finalized.
The average annual income for the 16,000 or so domestic workers in the Philadelphia metropolitan area in 2016 was $10,000, according to an analysis by Pilar Goñalons-Pons, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Most of these workers are women of color, and many are undocumented immigrants. They work in intimate and isolated workplaces and are particularly vulnerable to abuse, from employers threatening their immigration status to sexually harassing them.
The National Labor Relations Act that allows workers to unionize doesn’t cover domestic workers. Neither does the Occupational Health and Safety Act. “Live-in” workers are carved out of overtime protections in the Fair Labor Standards Act. In addition, federal antidiscrimination laws generally cover only employers with multiple employees, according to Jennifer Lee, a professor at the Temple University Beasley School of Law.
Eight states and the city of Seattle have passed legislation to bolster protections for domestic workers, including New York state, which in 2010 passed a bill guaranteeing domestic workers overtime, three paid vacation days a year, and protection from sexual and racial harassment.
Irene Jor, the New York director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), said the group is organizing a statewide Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights campaign in New Jersey, and hopes a bill is introduced in 2020.
Nationally, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) and U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D., Wash.) plan to introduce the first-ever federal Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which would mandate breaks and outline scheduling practices, and call on employers to provide benefits. NDWA Deputy Director Mariana Viturro expects the bill to be introduced in April.
The national effort has been buoyed recently by support from Hollywood, including director Alfonso Cuarón, who won an Oscar for Roma, a film about a domestic worker. Cuarón appeared in a public service announcement asking employers of these workers to “pay fairly, set clear expectations, and provide paid time off.”
Philadelphia-specific legislation is still being drafted. Nicole Kligerman, director of the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance, said workers hope the bill will mandate overtime pay and breaks, require contracts between employers and employees, address paid sick leave and vacation time, and establish an enforcement board or office.
She said the group also hopes the legislation “reinforces preexisting ordinances that we’re glad that are on the books, but are really woefully underreported and underenforced.” That includes laws that address minimum wage and wage theft.
Janet Ginzberg, a staff attorney at Community Legal Services drafting the legislation, said they’re considering carving domestic workers into current laws that mandate paid sick leave and establish scheduling practices. She said workers perceive that written contracts would “give them a lot of protection,” and lawyers are looking at how to address that concern.
Kligerman said formal contracts address “daily indignities” that can’t be legislated, such as implementing a fee for late payment and ensuring that workers be paid when an employer goes on vacation, is running late, or cancels at the last minute.
“If you spend two hours on four buses carrying all of your cleaning equipment through the snow to be told through the door, ‘we don’t need you today,’ you should get paid in full,” she said.
Contracts would also outline duties. Annie Johnson, 45, of the Stenton section of Philadelphia, worked as a nanny in New York and New Jersey for more than a decade. Employers often asked her to perform tasks outside the scope of caring for children, such as cleaning and laundry.
Since she moved to Philadelphia 18 months ago, Johnson, originally from Trinidad, hasn’t been able to find a well-paying nannying gig. Potential employers have offered her as low as $5 an hour, even though she has more than a decade of experience and a degree in early childhood care. (Minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.)
“If you have someone in your home and you trust that person to take care of your children or your mother, they should be paid on time," she said. "And they should be paid a good salary that can help them take care of their family.”
Legislation could also address a clause in the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance that allows employers of domestic workers to express certain preferences when hiring and firing. Rue Landau, executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, said the language was intended to protect, for example, families that want to hire a Spanish-speaker to care for a Spanish-speaking family member.
But Kligerman said the language could also protect employers who want to hire or fire a domestic worker for such reasons as race or religion. Lucy, the house cleaner, said a Philadelphia employer once told her “part of the reason why she liked me is because I’m lighter-skinned and she didn’t want black people to work for her.”
The biggest question is enforcement. Lee said cities often don’t have the resources to effectively enforce worker-friendly legislation, particularly when workers themselves don’t know what they’re entitled to under the law.
Councilwoman Helen Gym said Philadelphia needs a formal office to enforce labor standards beyond the existing Commission on Human Relations and the Mayor’s Office of Labor. (Administration officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.) She added: “This is going to require us to be working hard to both educate our employees and employers of their rights.”
For Lucy, advocating for stronger protections is about pay as much as it’s about feeling valued. There are plenty of good bosses out there, she said.
“But there are other people who, you get to their house, you say ‘hi,’ and they don’t even say ‘hi’ back,” she said. “And it’s like they just see you as another piece of furniture in the house.”