Armed with horror stories from Connecticut nannies and housekeepers about poor treatment for low pay, the Legislature is considering new safeguards for domestic workers.
Law students, legal aid groups and immigration activists are lobbying to see a “bill of rights” to protect domestic workers enacted this legislative session.
“Domestic workers often live in the home of the employer, isolated from the public and outside of the purview of federal labor laws,” said Alicia Kinsman, an immigration lawyer and managing attorney of the legal services program at the International Institute of Connecticut. “They commonly work 10 to 16 hours a day or more, six to seven days a week, for little to no pay. … If the home remains a place where labor laws do not apply, domestic workers will continue to be exploited with little legal protection.”
Lawyers said the bill of rights for domestic workers now being considered by the Legislature could open up a new area of employment law, especially given the fact that there is a large group that would potentially be affected if the law passes.
According to the National Employment Law Project, there are more than 40,000 domestic workers in Connecticut, including nannies, caregivers and housekeepers.
Most domestic workers are required to be paid a minimum wage and overtime under the national Fair Labor Standards Act, even though most domestic workers, many of whom are immigrants, do not realize it. In Connecticut, however, some domestic workers are not mentioned in the Connecticut Minimum Wage Act.
For example, babysitters are exempt from the state law, so there is a push to mention nannies separately for inclusion. Also, home-care workers are not included in either the FLSA or the CMWA.
Though the proposed bill aims to clean up those types of discrepancies in the wording of Connecticut statutes, the legislation would also add protections that domestic workers typically do not receive.
One case that brought attention to the need for legal reform for domestic workers was a lawsuit filed by the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of an African woman who was promised $700 a month to work for a Connecticut family, but paid only $200.
James Bhandary-Alexander, an attorney with New Haven Legal Assistance, handles employment cases involving low-wage workers. He sees the need and said he’s worked very closely on the campaign to get this proposed law passed.
“I’ve given advice to a lot of domestic workers, but I’ve only taken a few cases to court,” Bhandary-Alexander said. “The reason for that is it’s a difficult population to reach … they’re often spending much of their days in individual people’s homes.”
Bhandary-Alexander said domestic workers are not currently protected against such things that other workers are such as employment discrimination and sexual harassment.
“People are working in other people’s homes and so there’s a lot of room for abuse, and some of these abuses are very predictable and sexual harassment is very predictable,” said Bhandary-Alexander, noting that the majority of domestic workers are female.
Other rights that would be afforded to domestic workers if lawmakers pass the legislation would include paid time off and sick time. The law would require that domestic workers living in someone’s home be afforded one day off a week and a week off a year. The employer must also allow a certain amount of time for a worker to sleep and must give seven days’ notice of termination.
Bhandary-Alexander said another benefit he hopes would become part of the law would be making domestic workers eligible for workers’ compensation benefits if they were to get injured on the job. He said most domestic workers are currently eligible for unemployment benefits if they were to lose their job, but most are unaware of that.
“One of the really neat ideas is a requirement that employers and the employee enter into a written agreement at the beginning of agreement. It spells out the basic terms and conditions of the job,” Bhandary-Alexander said.
“These written contracts, when they’re used, are extremely popular with the domestic employee and the employers. They provide a structure to the relationship that’s often lacking.”
Bhandary-Alexander said all of these ideas came together at a meeting in Bridgeport last year among a hundred or so domestic workers called the Domestic Workers Congress. The Brazilian Immigrant Center helped plan the event and has been instrumental in lobbying for the latest bill of rights proposal.
A public hearing was held before the General Assembly’s Labor and Public Employees Committee earlier this month. The bill was voted favorably out of committee March 18 and will likely next go to the full House and Senate.
Sen. Martin Looney is among the lawmakers advocating for the bill’s passage.
Looney said the bill “would improve working conditions for many workers in our state who have been left out of basic labor law protections for far too long.”
Sarah Leberstein, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project, said Connecticut would be the fourth state in the country to add a law to protect household workers. New York was the first state to pass a similar law in 2010. California and Hawaii then followed suit last year.
“The Connecticut domestic worker bill of rights is part of a larger trend towards increasing workplace protections for domestic workers,” said Leberstein, who noted that similar proposals are pending in Massachusetts and Illinois.
“A lot more workers are asking about rights and getting clarification on what protections apply to them,” Leberstein said. “Enforcement in the domestic work industry is going to continue to be a challenge … so it’s crucial to have a receptive department of labor that’s willing to educate about the new rights and do materials that employers and workers can access.”
In written testimony, Sharon Palmer, Connecticut commissioner of the state Department of Labor, said she opposes the bill of rights for domestic workers. She said it would cause the department “to expend significant resources, which are not presently available.”
Leberstein, however, thinks the proposal would be manageable for the state office.
“I would want to point out that the department of labor already has jurisdiction over domestic workers and enforces many workplace laws on their behalf or have the ability to do so,” said Leberstein. “It’s not as if the Connecticut Department of Labor overnight would have to suddenly enforce laws for a huge group of workers it’s never had any dealing with before. It’s just an expansion of the rights those workers have.”
Both Leberstein and Bhandary-Alexander say it remains to be seen whether a new bill of rights would lead to more lawsuits, as workers become more aware of their rights.
“There’s an awful lot of abuse out there. There really is,” Bhandary-Alexander said. “But people in those situations don’t want to lose their jobs. They’re already in a precarious financial situation. Often times even if they’re advised they have a legal remedy, it’s difficult for them to pursue it in a formal way.”•