Workplace Standards for Domestic Workers: Breakthrough NY Legislation Approved

On June 1, the New York Senate put the state in position to be first in the nation to enact a Domestic Workers' Rights law (S2311) by a vote of 33-28. The New York Assembly led the way in June 2009 when it passed its own version of the bill (A1470). This groundbreaking legislation will extend core labor rights, from fair labor standards to paid sick days, to creating a framework for collective bargaining, to domestic workers. This will include those employed to work in a private home to perform housekeeping and/or to care for children, the infirm, or the elderly.

The two versions of the law must be reconciled, as the Senate bill goes much farther in extending basic labor standards, but Gov. David Paterson pledged last year that he would sign the bill. A campaign to pass similar domestic workers legislation is also active in California.

Justice Seventy Years Delayed: Seventy years after passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), domestic workers like agricultural workers are still denied many basic labor protections under federal law such as overtime pay and the ability to join a union. That omission was an extension of the country's entrenched history of discrimination, particularly in the pre-Civil Rights Act era: both farm and domestic workforces had long been dominated by African Americans.

In the 21st Century, domestic workers remain one of the most exploited segments of the workforce, being comprised almost entirely of immigrant women: according to Domestic Workers' United, 99% are foreign born, 95% are people of color, and 93% are women. Until 1974, when the FLSA was amended to extend minimum wage coverage to them, domestic workers were not protected by any major federal labor law.

As California showed by passing the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, states can play a leading role in providing basic labor standards for workers abandoned by federal labor law. Just as the United Farm Workers elevated the plight of farmworkers to national attention beginning in the 1960s - and which resulted in passage of the California law - groups such as Domestic Workers United and the National Domestic Workers Alliance have just begun in the last decade to bring similar attention to promoting state and federal reforms on behalf of domestic workers.

Precedent-Setting Standards: Because of the challenging employer-employee relationship involved in domestic employment, the Senate law seeks to create a standard contract for all domestic workers specifying benefits that they are owed. The New York Assembly version has more limited but important benefits - guaranteeing a minimum wage law, prohibiting mandatory overtime, overtime pay, guaranteeing one day of rest per week, and directing the state's Labor Department to investigate a framework for providing employer-provided healthcare and collective bargaining - while the Senate version also provides for:

  • Paid time off, including six paid holidays, five vacation days, and seven paid sick days (with provision for holiday pay and increased overtime rate on holidays)
  • Two-weeks, written notice of termination, with violations subject to back-pay
  • Criminal penalties for violations, including misdemeanor penalties of up to $20,000 and one year in prison for first violations, and similar felony penalties for subsequent offenses
  • Enforcement either through civil action or prosecution by the Labor Department or Attorney General, with willful violations subject to fines equal to 25% of unpaid wages

A National Breakthrough on Paid Sick Days: Should the paid time off provisions of the Senate bill be included in the final version of the law, New York will be the first state in the country to establish paid time off as a basic labor standard, not just for domestic workers, but for any private-sector employees -- advancing basic labor standards that are common throughout the rest of the world but sorely lacking in the United States. The new law is especially significant for the movement to enact paid sick leave legislation, since it would also be the first time an entire industrial sector has acquired the right to take paid sick time off from work. The Domestic Workers' Rights bill has not met with organized opposition thus far, primarily because of the informal nature of domestic employment.