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For years, D.C.’s nannies, home care workers, housecleaners, and others who work in home settings have taken to the streets and councilmembers’ homes and offices to demand basic rights like protections against workplace discrimination and exploitation. Early last year, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman vowed to introduce a D.C. Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. In December, when domestic workers and advocates called in her promise, Silverman said via email that her labor committee was working on the bill to introduce next year. Yesterday, the councilmember kept her word.
Silverman announced the Domestic Worker Employment Rights Amendment Act of 2022 during a Tuesday press conference outside the John A. Wilson Building. At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson, Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George, and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who had lost his voice, also addressed a crowd of ecstatic, sign-carrying members of the D.C. chapter of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. With five additional co-introducers, the bill enjoys enough early support to pass the full Council.
The bill would require anyone in the District who hires a domestic worker for more than five hours per month to provide a written contract that sets standards for work hours, pay, and responsibilities. Antonia Surco, who has worked for 18 years as a nanny and senior caregiver in the District, tells City Paper she was paid $20 for a full day’s work when she first arrived from Peru in 2004. She didn’t realize until later that she, and other domestic workers who were paid even less, were being exploited.
It’s not uncommon for employers to take advantage of recently arrived immigrants, particularly those lacking documentation. Verbal agreements are subject to change at any moment and go unchecked by employment law, leaving domestic workers subject to wage theft and piled-on responsibilities to which they never consented. Sucel Merida says she has heard that employers of domestic workers ask them to stay longer than their shifts without compensation.
Surco has had employers suddenly ask her to do cooking, cleaning, and laundry—tasks squarely outside her role as nanny—while the children sleep. The requests come without additional compensation and would, were she not to reject them, put her and the children at risk, she says. Focusing on other tasks could mean she might not notice if something happens to a young child in the middle of the night.
Altagracia Kubinyi says when she arrived in the District in 2020 she believed this type of exploitation only happened in places similar to her home country, the Dominican Republic, where she once bussed to the city to work long days, only to have her employer pay her with a single meal.
“When I came and encountered this reality—that we don’t have basic employment guarantees, [or] protections in Washington, the seat of power in this country—I couldn’t believe it,” Kubinyi says.
She has heard horror stories from other child care workers of employers hiring someone to secretly follow them on the job for days. Kubinyi is fortunate to work for a family who treats her well, she says. But she still hasn’t secured an employment contract, which causes uncomfortable moments when she has to remind her employers of verbally agreed-upon benefits like paid vacation and time off for federal holidays.
“It feels like employers are doing us a huge favor instead of honoring our agreements,” Kubinyi says. “Like we’re at the mercy of their compassion instead of respect for the agreements we’ve made.”
The bill would also reverse the exclusion of domestic workers in two critical employment laws: the D.C. Human Rights Act, which protects against workplace discrimination, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which would apply workplace safety provisions. The District’s estimated 9,000 domestic workers, mostly Black and Brown women, have been excluded from federal and local labor protections, a legacy of slavery in the U.S., Silverman says.
This bill would also make the city responsible for community outreach and public education and guidance around domestic workers’ rights and for supplying template agreements.
Merida, who had extensive experience in child care before immigrating to the District from Guatemala, got her Child Development Associate accreditation in D.C. years ago and has educated herself on rights of domestic workers. But she says this isn’t the case for many. She teaches a course on domestic worker rights through NDWA and tends to be the go-to person among her circles of child care workers for questions about rights and resources. This bill, if passed, would shift some of that onus onto the city and employers of D.C.’s domestic workers.
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