California’s domestic workers, primarily immigrant women of color, vowed to continue fighting for labor rights after Governor Jerry Brown vetoed Assembly Bill (A.B.) 889, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Brown said in his veto message that the bill raised too many unanswered questions. But the National Domestic Workers Alliance accused Brown of doing a “tremendous disservice” not only to the workers but to the people they care for. After multiple mobilizations in Sacramento of thousands of workers, for whom time away from work was a real sacrifice, and after New York adopted similar legislation in 2010, workers had been hopeful.
The labor of domestic workers, who care for children, older people, and people with disabilities, goes largely unrecognized, and these workers lack basic protections that others take for granted. For historical reasons, domestic workers are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act and other employment laws. And because domestic workers toil in isolation in individual homes, taking concerted action can be difficult. But in recent years, across the country, they’ve found each other and begun to organize.
A decade of advocacy in New York City culminated in a state law that provides expanded overtime pay, protection from discrimination, mandatory days of rest, and other basic benefits for the tens of thousands of women who work as nannies, housekeepers, and companions for the elderly in New York State. Clearinghouse Review reported on that effort last year. Authors Ai-jen Poo and E. Tammy Kim described how a campaign that began with a focus on domestic workers’ grievances against individual employers grew into a multi-year effort focused on the state legislature. Domestic workers from the Asian, South Asian, Latina, and Caribbean communities collaborated to design the legislation. Starting in 2003, they built a base, recruited allies, and told their stories publicly. The New York Assembly passed a version of their bill in 2009; the state senate followed in 2010, and Governor David Paterson signed the bill that summer.
California domestic workers have also been organizing for a decade, and workers’ advocates were hopeful that California would follow New York’s lead, particularly given California’s large immigrant population. Domestic workers’ rights legislation had passed in the state in 2006 but was vetoed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger, a Republican. This time, there was reason to think that the chances were better with Democrat Jerry Brown in office. After all, the first time Brown was governor—some 35 years ago—he staunchly supported the landmark California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which dramatically increased the labor rights of farmworkers.
A.B. 889 would have removed the exclusion of California’s approximately 200,000 domestic workers under other state labor laws and, in the words of Sylvia Lopez, a leader of the California Domestic Workers Coalition, recognize them as “real workers.” If Brown had signed the bill into law, Lopez and her colleagues would have been assured of the same rights other employees enjoy to meal and rest breaks, overtime pay, and workers compensation. Domestic workers who “live in” or work 24-hour shifts would have received certain industry-specific protections as well, such as the right to eight uninterrupted hours of sleep and use of kitchen facilities to cook their own food.
But Governor Brown wasn’t persuaded. In his veto message, he expressed concern for elderly or disabled employers of domestic workers, asked what the bill’s “economic and human impact” would be on employers, and also raised other questions. However, he didn’t reject the bill’s approach entirely, calling instead for the Department of Industrial Relations to “study” his questions and simultaneously to address certain domestic worker issues through regulations.
Although describing itself as “shocked” at the veto, the National Domestic Workers Alliance vowed to continue and expand its campaign in California and to move into other states as well, suggesting Illinois and Massachusetts as likely locales for new efforts. Work is only beginning in these states, and the Shriver Center will be involved in the campaign in Illinois as it unfolds.