Members of the D.C. Domestic Workers Alliance rally outside the Wilson Building in support of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Credit: Ambar Castillo

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More than a dozen D.C. Domestic Workers Alliance members rallied at the John A. Wilson Building before sundown on Wednesday to remind one councilmember of her long-ago promise. Wearing New Year’s party hats, the women held a banner that stretched across the right side of the building entrance with a red and blue hand-painted message: “CM Silverman’s New Years Resolution: Introduce the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.”

Arms pumping intermittently, they chanted “¡Washington escucha, estamos en la lucha!” (“Listen D.C., we’re in this fight!”) and the classic call-and-response “What do we want? A bill of rights! When do we want it? Now!” 

At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman pledged to introduce a D.C. Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in early 2021. Then, in July, she doubled down on her support at a town hall with the D.C. Domestic Workers Alliance, where domestic workers shared their stories. 

After publication, Silverman said via email: “…yes, my labor committee is working on the bill to introduce next year. Margaret O’Hora on my committee has been working with the Alliance on it.”

This bill of rights would protect the more than 47,000 nannies, caregivers, and housekeepers working in the D.C. metro area from wage theft, workplace discrimination, lack of access to benefits, and fluctuating schedules. Eleven councilmembers introduced and co-sponsored its precursor, the Domestic Workers Protection Act of 2019, but the legislative needle didn’t move before the end of the Council session. The D.C. Domestic Workers Bill of Rights was a product of conversations D.C. Domestic Workers Alliance held with its members about necessary protections, explains Alana Eichner, DC Lead Organizer at National Domestic Workers Alliance.

While narrower than the 2019 bill, it would include similar protections and is centered on the following basic rights for some of the most vulnerable workers in the District:

•Eliminating domestic workers’ exclusion in D.C.’s Human Rights Act and D.C.’s Occupational Health and Safety law, a racist and sexist omission that dates back to the 1935 Social Security Act, when farmworkers, who were predominantly Black, and domestic workers, most of whom were Black women, were deliberately left out of basic workplace rights. Including domestic workers would protect them against workplace sexual harassment and discrimination and unsafe work conditions.

“I’ve always told Councilmember Silverman, ‘You all seem to still be living under the laws of slavery,’ in which the domestic worker was meant to be enslaved, work without any rights,” says Antonia Surco, who has worked as a babysitter and senior caregiver for the past 16 years. “While slavery may be over, domestic workers still aren’t included in basic human rights law.” 

In this country, Surco says, a cat or dog has more rights than domestic workers, including the right to health insurance. The inaction of officials to break away from the racist legacy of their exclusion from protections also shows a devaluing of their work, when they’re taking care of other people, not objects, she says. 

•Require written agreements between domestic workers and their employers instead of the verbal ones that are common in such work arrangements and contribute to wage theft and lack of access to breaks and stable schedules. 

For Andrea de Paz, who worked cleaning houses for more than 10 years before losing her livelihood during the pandemic, written agreements are key to preventing abuse. She says she watched her cousin, a nanny, grow sick from stress and die a few years after escaping an abusive work situation where she was forced to stay at her employer’s home “like a slave,” was constantly threatened, and wasn’t being paid for all the hours she worked. The consequences can be fatal, she says. 

The sexism in domestic workers’ devalorization here in D.C. is as apparent as in Guatemala, her home country, says de Paz. “They think, ‘Oh, women only cook, clean, take care of children,’—that is more responsibility than going into an office, especially when you’re taking care of others’ children.”

•Fund a Domestic Work Outreach and Education Program within the Department of Employment Services, which would support organizations that already work with domestic workers and employers to train and educate employers on workers’ rights and help process any workplace claims against employers. 

Holding employers accountable is also crucial for workers at high risk of exploitation, says Ingrid Vaca. Since moving to D.C. from La Paz, Bolivia, 21 years ago, Vaca has worked in all three major domestic worker roles— nanny, caregiver, and housecleaner—in the region. Shortly before the pandemic, she was fired from one long-term housecleaning job after asking for a $10 raise. 

After making $70 per cleaning working for the same employer for 14 years, in 2020, Vaca says, she had finally asked for $80. Her job entailed a scrupulous level of detail, as she had to polish and place each newly shined object in the house in a precise spot for her employer, who was blind. After about a year, Vaca recounts going into work one day and finding a terrible stench in the bathroom—there was fecal matter on the bathroom walls and even on the living room couch. She says she asked her employer, who suffered from kidney disease, what had happened, and he said nothing, gave no apologies or offered no additional compensation. When Vaca asked for a $10 increase in her pay for that day, her employer called her an “illegal alien” and told her he would pay her the additional $10 if she took him to court. 

“I was not going to court so I could clean up his shit,” says Vaca, shaking her head. 

The sky had darkened when Vaca squinted at a bicyclist zooming past the entrance.

“The councilwoman has said I’m her worst nightmare,” Vaca says, grinning.

An earlier comment attributed to a source her belief that she had spotted Councilmember Silverman supposedly fleeing the scene. Silverman clarified that she was unaware of the rally and was running late to an event where her attendance was confirmed. This post has been updated with a statement from Councilmember Silverman’s office.