Victory and Justice for New York’s Domestic Workers

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August 31, 2010 will be a day remembered by many New Yorkers for a long time. Today Governor Paterson signed the Domestic Workers Rights bill. The bill extends a variety of employment protections enjoyed by most workers throughout the country and fixes a federal exemption for domestic service workers. While it may have made sense to exclude a live-in nanny in a prior era, when such nannies were practically (or often literally) members of the family, we now live in an age where large staffing companies provide consistent live-in help in a business oriented model. It’s therefore extremely appropriate to extend basic wage and hour protections to these workers.

Some of the main benefits of the law include:

  • One day off per week (or equivalent OT pay)
  • Three paid vacation days annually
  • Time and a half for overtime hours (over 40 or 40 hours/week)
  • Eligibility for disability benefits
  • Inclusion in New York’s anti-discrimination law and additional provisions protecting workers from racial and/or sexual harassment

The benefits from this law are clear. Domestic workers will be guaranteed dignity and justice on the job. They will gain one day off a week, overtime benefits, and will no longer be exempt from the protections of the state anti-discrimination law. For workers in very specific and intimate work settings, they will now have the protection of the law to fend off discriminatory or abusive working conditions.

Furthermore, it is very possible that domestic workers will be given the right to organize and collectively bargain in the near future.  The state labor department is authorized to study the feasibility of extending collective bargaining rights to domestic workers under New York’s Labor Law.  Domestic workers are excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (federal law) but may be included in state law.  This is analogous to the controversial Farmworkers Rights Bill in the domestic setting.

I would guess that this probably leads to organizing rights under state law for domestic workers who work for a staffing agency. It would be inordinately difficult to organize individual domestic workers working in individual homes, but through a staffing agency a union could represent the employeees of the staffing agency. Such a union would look a lot like home health care aide unions.

One more note: this is an important victory for labor on a larger scale.  Any extension of organizing and employment benefits for some workers is a victory for all workers.  It gives us more legitimacy to argue for further extension of labor protections for unprotected workers, like New York’s farmworkers.  It helps increase union density and improves the progressive movement as a result.  And dignity on the job is the single best way to improve the quality of life for the working class.

Today is a great day for domestic workers and all those who stand for justice and fair pay at the workplace.