Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Women’s Commission holds hearing on domestic worker rights

This article appeared in the April 25th editor of the Chestnut Hill Local

Nicole Kligerman (left) and Annie Johnson of the PA Domestic Workers Alliance.

by Karen Bojar

The Philadelphia Commission for Women held a town hall on “Dignity for Domestic Workers” on April 17 to educate the community about the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, soon to be introduced by Councilperson Maria Quiñones-Sanchez. The town hall was a follow-up to an April 8 City Council hearing to examine labor standards for domestic workers throughout the city of Philadelphia.

Protections enjoyed by most workers under the National Labor Relations Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act are not available to domestic workers, a category including house cleaners, caretakers and nannies.

These exclusions go back to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which excluded domestic workers and sharecroppers from labor protections and from Social Security as the price of getting the support of southern Democrats, whose votes were thought to be necessary for passage of New Deal legislation. The exclusion from Social Security was remedied in the 1950s, but the exclusion from labor protections continues into the 21st century.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance is fighting to eliminate this exclusion. To date, California, New York state and Seattle have all passed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

Quiñones-Sanchez reported that all women (and some men) on City Council strongly support legislation that would address the plight of domestic workers. Most of these workers are women of color, and many are undocumented immigrants with an average annual income of $10,000, according to an analysis by University of Pennsylvania Professor Pilar Gonalons-Pons.

At the town hall, Annie Johnson and Nicole Kligerman made a powerful case for expanding labor laws to include domestic workers. Johnson, a native of Trinidad, worked as a nanny in New York and New Jersey for more than a decade.

Despite her years of experience and her degree in early childhood education, employers have offered her salaries below the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Johnson stressed that the domestic workers’ rights movement is not just about wages and benefits, but also about dignity. She described the mistreatment she has been subjected to, including cameras filming her every move, even when she was in the bathroom.

Kligerman, director of the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance, noted that Philadelphiaspecific legislation is still being drafted. Her organization is lobbying for the bill to mandate overtime pay and breaks, paid sick leave and vacation time, to require contracts between employees and employers and to establish an enforcement board. Of course, as she pointed out, laws are only as good as the enforcement mechanism. Councilwoman Helen Gym has called for a formal office to enforce labor standards.

Quiñones-Sanchez noted that recent legislation (fair work week, minimum wage and pay equity) and the legislation she hopes will result from the Domestic Workers Campaign are all connected, and are all intended to make working people’s lives more secure – “to bring low wage workers out of the shadows,” as she put it.

The Commission for Women has supported all of the above efforts, seeing them as part of a larger movement to improve the lives of low-income women and families in Philadelphia.

A regular contributor to the Local, Karen Bojar is Vice Chair of the Commission for Women and a resident of Mt. Airy.

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