Expanding labor protections for domestic workers is long overdue

Activists rally to support two Filipina domestic workers who had shifts of more than 90 hours per week and earned as little as four dollars per hour. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Florida remains at the forefront of state and national immigration concerns — from passing a statewide “sanctuary cities” ban to detaining migrant children in Homestead to legislators’ controversial (and now postponed) immigration listening tour.

Meanwhile, a recent federal proposal that would provide tangible benefits to over 100,000 Florida immigrants, women, and people of color went largely unnoticed.

In July, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California and U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington, introduced the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act, an effort to counter domestic workers’ historic exclusion from labor protections. A domestic worker broadly includes anyone who is employed in another person’s household (such as nannies, homemakers, and senior caregivers).

The Act would mandate written contracts of scheduled hours and time off for each employee, including breaks, paid overtime and sick days.

It would also protect against harassment and discrimination, authorize workers to collectively bargain, increase access to retirement and healthcare coverage, and establish a federal domestic worker task force.

And it would do so for immigrants too, regardless of documentation. To date, no Florida member of Congress has co-sponsored this legislation.

Hindering domestic workers’ rights has roots in the South

When widespread labor protections were first implemented with the New Deal of the 1930s, the majority of Black employees in the South were domestic workers and farmworkers.

Because President Roosevelt needed support from Southern politicians to pass labor legislation and employers were keen to preserve their exploitative practices, domestic workers and farmworkers were purposely left out of the new protections.

The legacy of this concession persists to this day.

Oft-denigrated as “women’s work,” the field is burdened by low wages, insufficient hours, lack of benefits, vulnerability to abuse and taxing job conditions. It’s no wonder why home care worker turnover topped 82 percent last year.

A forthcoming report by the Economic Policy Institute shows that Florida employs more than 100,000 domestic workers, which is the fourth highest share in the country.

As of 2012, the latest year for which state data is available, 96 percent of Florida’s domestic workers were women, 54 percent were Hispanic or Black, and over half were immigrants, higher than the national averages in each of these categories.

“Nannies, house cleaners and caregivers have proudly and lovingly helped protect generations of families in Florida with very few protections and rights,” points out Andrea Mercado, executive director of New Florida Majority in Homestead. “The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act is a step in the right direction.”

An aging population is increasingly driving domestic work

It is widely known that Florida is home to the highest proportion of seniors in the nation. Adults 65 and up are the fastest-growing age group, and the overwhelming majority prefer to spend their golden years in a home-based setting instead of a nursing home or related facility.

But who will care for these Baby Boomers as they age? With family caregiving in decline, domestic workers are expected to take up the mantle, ballooning to five times the growth rate of any other job sector within the next seven years.

Congress’ proposed legislation would especially benefit domestic workers in South Florida.

Not only are over half of Miami-Dade’s citizens foreign-born, but Miami-Dade leads Florida’s 67 counties in the number of agencies providing home health, homemaking and companionship services. And that doesn’t even take into account the countless domestic workers who are self-employed.

While nine states have implemented their own bills of rights for domestic workers since 2010, Florida is not one of them.

A federal Domestic Workers Bill of Rights may not solve the caregiver and immigration crises in Florida, but it’s a crucial stride toward promoting equity and inclusion in vital work that has long been the purview of immigrants and women of color.

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