Despite the strong national conversation taking place about minimum wages for fast food workers and living wages for Walmart employees, American citizens have failed to speak out for the workers found closest to home. Domestic workers, the almost entirely female workforce that takes care of children and cleans houses, are not protected by standard labor laws in the majority of the United States. Unless these laws change, traditionally feminine domestic work will always be undervalued.
Fortunately, advocates for domestic workers are seeing some progress. On Wednesday, the California Senate passed a bill that would guarantee basic labor protections to the state’s 200,000 domestic workers. Commonly called the Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights, the bill provides basic worker’s protections such as standard working hours, required meal breaks, overtime pay, and sick leave.
This comes just one year after Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a similar piece of legislation in 2012, claiming that domestic workers might become less popular if employers had to follow the new regulations. Opponents feel that both laws would drive up the price of domestic labor and suppress the market. If the law is enacted, California will join New York and Hawaii as the only three states with rights protections for domestic workers.
The scarcity of these protections speaks to the gendered history of domestic labor. Household work and childrearing have always been a woman’s responsibility and this has not changed even as more women have chosen to work outside of the home. Given this history, it is not surprising household workers remain an undervalued work force. The problem is further amplified by racial discrimination. A 2012 survey showed that white caregivers earn an average of $12 per hour, while Latino caregivers earn $10 and Asian caregivers earn $8.33. Similarly, undocumented domestic workers are paid 20% less than citizens and are 66% more likely to work while ill.
In California, this combination of disrespect for “feminine” work and lower wages for women of color is particularly problematic. California has a vast population of documented and undocumented Latinas, both of whom are likely to get paid low wages for difficult work done under bad conditions.
Considering the drastic affect of these statutes on the health and wellbeing of many women, it is surprising they are not being discussed alongside the larger debate over the minimum wage and worker’s rights. The feminist movement in particular should be actively fighting for passage of the Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights in all 50 states. As long as domestic workers are underpaid and poorly treated, all domestic work will be dismissed, which leaves American women with the only option of trying to do it all.