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Posts Tagged ‘Domestic Workers Bill of Rights’

Hooray for Albany? Legislature Acts to Boost Working People and the Economy

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

amytraub4Griping about Albany is always in style: pundits denounce late budgets, lax ethics rules, and special interest shenanigans. And they’ve got a point. But in the end-of-session frenzy, state legislators are also taking far more positive action: raising workplace standards for some of the state’s most exploited workers, many of whom (no surprise) live and work in New York City. By lifting pay and strengthening protections for low-wage workers, the new legislation will also promote economic recovery.

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights gets the most ink, and for good reason: once it’s signed by the governor, this landmark law will be the first in the nation to set basic labor standards for household employees like nannies, caregivers and housekeepers. As I noted in an earlier post about the measure, the bill

guarantees basic workplace protections like overtime pay, the chance to take at least a day off every week, coverage under employment discrimination laws, advance notice if a domestic employee is about to be fired, and minimal paid sick time and vacation. It would apply to 200,000 domestic workers in New York currently subject to the whims of their employers when it comes to these fundamental rights.

But a law doesn’t need to be the first in the nation to be effective at protecting New Yorkers on the job. The Wage Theft Prevention Act, passed in slightly different versions by the State Senate and Assembly and awaiting reconciliation, follows the footsteps of successful legislation in Miami-Dade County and in states from Washington to Wisconsin. The bill strengthens incentives for employers to comply with the wage and hour regulations already on the books by stiffening penalties for cheating employees out of wages, encouraging workers to come forward, and providing new avenues for investigating and prosecuting wage theft cases – and ensuring violators will pay up. The need for this legislation is vividly highlighted by research revealing that in New York City alone, an estimated 586,000 low-wage workers a year see a portion of their pay stolen by employers, losing an aggregate $18.4 million every week as a result.

Finally, Albany is acting to make good on the promise that the state government shouldn’t undermine the pay of private sector employees. By clarifying standards that require service workers employed at public agencies to be paid the prevailing wage for their job category, janitorial staff and security guards at massive utilities like Con Edison will see their wages and benefits rise to match the standard paid to other local workers in their industries. The bill awaits the governor’s signature.

Together, these three bills will increase workplace protections for nearly 800,000 working New Yorkers, adding to the security of their families. And while the legislation includes critical safeguards on issues like employment discrimination and adequate time off, the bills also provide an increase in pay for some the lowest paid workers in New York. By putting money in the pockets of working people, they will boost local businesses and contribute to the state’s economic recovery.

While critics carp that the bills will be “burdensome” to business and could harm job creation as a result, the facts are against them. Business is on its way to recovery: corporate profits jumped 44% in the first quarter of 2010 compared to a year earlier. Yet growing profits have not prompted a comparable increase in hiring. Small businesses, meanwhile, continue to report that the biggest factor harming their profitability is weak sales and a lack of customers. Putting more money into the hands of people who will spend it, as these bills do, will encourage the consumer demand that spurs companies to hire.

Columnist Errol Louis at the Daily News notes that the state legislature “racked up a number of solid achievements that will increase opportunity and fairness for working people.” He’s right. And all of New York stands to benefit. Governor Paterson should sign the three pro-worker, pro-economy bills as soon as they hit his desk.

About the Author: Amy Traub is the Director of Research at the Drum Major Institute. A native of the Cleveland area, Amy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Chicago. She received a graduate fellowship to study political science at Columbia University, where she earned her Masters degree in 2001 and completed coursework towards a Ph.D. Funded by a field research grant from the Tinker Foundation, Amy conducted original research in Mexico City, exploring the development of the Mexican student movement. Before coming to the Drum Major Institute, Amy headed the research department of a major New York City labor union, where her efforts contributed to the resolution of strikes and successful union organizing campaigns by hundreds of working New Yorkers.

Domestic Workers in New York Win First-Ever Job Protections

Friday, July 9th, 2010

Troublemakers logo-blueDomestic workers in New York have won historic changes to the state’s labor law to include protections for their jobs. Final votes on Thursday ended weeks of wrangling between state Assembly and Senate leaders and Governor David Paterson, who said he would sign the bill.

The law guarantees domestic workers time-and-half pay for more than 40 hours and a day off each week, along with protection under worker compensation and anti-discrimination law and access to unemployment insurance. The compromise bill won’t include original demands for paid sick and vacation days and advance notice of termination. But three paid days off were granted after a year of service.

Domestic workers and advocates have been holding their breath since June 1, when 100 domestic workers and allies from around New York City traveled a well-worn path to Albany for a vote on the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The housekeepers and caregivers who tend to the children and homes of New York’s well-to-do had made this trip countless times in the last six years, coming face to face with lawmakers to campaign for basic protections on the job.

Promised votes that never materialized had disappointed them many times before. But on that night, after hours of worker testimonies and a few stories from state senators about the domestic work their mothers and grandmothers did, the Senate—at long last—voted 33 to 28 in favor of the bill.

“It was an incredible moment of validation,” said Priscilla Gonzalez, director of Domestic Workers United, the organization behind the bill. “We started six years ago by walking into legislators’ offices and educating them. Now we found ourselves witnessing senator after senator thanking these immigrant women of color who had been invisible for so long.”

DECADE OF STRUGGLE

The legislative victory in New York is a historic blow at domestic workers’ exclusion from federal labor protections. The legislation would be the first in the country to provide protections to domestic workers since the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 first excluded them.

The biggest stumbling block appeared to be outgoing Governor Paterson. While he reaffirmed the pledge of support he made for the bill on a radio show last year—acknowledging the historical exclusion of domestic and farm workers from labor law protections as racist—he approached the bill cautiously, at first issuing a statement denying he supported it. After the Senate and Assembly approved the compromise version Thursday, with three Republicans joining all 32 Democrats in the Senate, Paterson announced he would sign the bill.

The law also calls on the state’s Department of Labor to study the feasibility of collective bargaining for domestic workers and issue a report by November.

Domestic Workers United has much to celebrate in coming this far. DWU, founded in 2000, estimates that at least 200,000 people in the state—mostly immigrant women from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America—work in other people’s homes as housekeepers and live-in caregivers.

While some caregivers report decent working conditions with warm families and children they adore, others have to live with over-demanding bosses, and organizers have heard (and experienced) every horror story imaginable, from sexual assault to sewage-filled basement living conditions, abuse both physical and emotional—a litany of violations against basic human decency.

Even the not-so-bad situations can take a turn. Domestic workers report not being compensated for long trips, having to work while sick, and being let go without notice.

“A lot of times when you’re sick and can’t get up and go to work, you still get up and try to go, because you know you won’t get paid or they will replace you,” said Merilyn Blackett, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago with six years at DWU and nine years as a care provider for the elderly.

Arranging her own medical care has been difficult, too. Unable to get appointments during off hours, Blackett said she’d have to decide between getting paid or seeing her doctor.

Blackett and other determined workers met in 2004 to spell out what they wanted to see changed at work, giving birth to what would become the Bill of Rights.

TILL THE END

Domestic workers planned daily events in front of the governor’s office the week of June 14 to insist he sign the bill. Organizers burned through call lists and invited out prominent friends like the feminist leader Gloria Steinem, friendly legislators, labor leaders, and other allies gained during a decade of organizing.

Gonzalez said she expected legislators to prepare a compromise between the two bills, but argued for the strongest possible provisions. “Sick days and holidays are things that domestic workers on their own would not be able to negotiate—the power balance with the employer is too great,” she said. “We’re not asking for anything more than anyone else gets—we’re asking to get onto equal footing with other workers.”

Not everyone’s in support. Comments on news articles online show that for some employers, the bill hits a raw nerve. Gonzalez said some lawmakers fear the precedent this bill would set for domestic workers in other states and other groups of excluded workers—like farm workers.

DWU offers them no illusions: with their allies, they intend to run with the precedent as far and fast as they can.

SPREADING THE GAINS

DWU’s work is being replicated in other states through the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an organization of worker centers, immigrant rights groups, and domestic worker cooperatives that grew up out of the 2007 U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta.

Blackett said when she first got involved in DWU, after a friend encouraged her to attend a monthly meeting, “we were just thinking about mobilizing the domestic workers in New York City.” After DWU members went to Atlanta, she realized there were many other domestic workers they could help if they prevailed at home.

Domestic workers and their allies in California and Colorado are drafting their own bills of rights to introduce in their state legislatures. Organizations from the Bay to LA are collaborating to introduce a bill next year. They’ve produced a detailed survey of conditions, won the support of the San Francisco City Council, and gained a hearing on domestic worker conditions with the state legislature’s labor committee.

At the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in June, the national alliance and a host of organizations planned a multi-year campaign to change federal labor law to cover all domestic and farm workers.

Originally published on Labor Notes.

About The Author: Tiffany Ten Eyck, a Michigan native, has worked with the Student/Farmworker Alliance and the successful Taco Bell Boycott campaign. A former SEIU intern, USAS activist, and anti-war agitator; she covers the UAW, farm workers, workers centers,  and building trades for Labor Notes.

Social Forum Focuses on Workers’ Issues

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Image: James ParksWorkers’ issues were the focus of  five days of  marches, rallies and workshops at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, which ended over the weekend. Grassroots activists and progressives from across the country came together to build new alliances, create new strategies and put new energy into the movement to turn around the American economy.

Writing in Workday Minnesota, Howard Kling quotes a UAW leader who says the forum was an opportunity for labor to build relationships with other movements and encourage a “strong, fight-back attitude toward the intense corporate agenda that is blocking change on health care, labor rights, fair trade policies and a host of issues that we believe in.”

Throughout the forum, union members were hard at work making sure working peoples’ voices were heard. In a brainstorming session at the start of the forum, the hundreds of union members attending the five-day event listed the changes most needed to improve conditions for workers in the United States. The list included passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, immigration reform, a public blacklist of employers who mistreat workers, enforcement of existing labor laws, a federal jobs bill and the criminalizing of labor law violations.

On the first full day of the forum, newly elected UAW President Bob King joined Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO President Saundra Williams; Al Garrett, president of AFSCME District Council 25; and Armando Robles, UE Local 1110 president, in leading a march and rally through the streets of Detroit. Chanting “Full and Fair Employment Now!” and “Money for Jobs, Not for Banks!” participants demanded Congress address the pressing jobs emergency.

One of the forum highlights was a joint meeting of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) to develop strategies to better protect the rights of some of the nation’s most vulnerable workers.

Domestic workers often are afraid to join unions for fear of losing their jobs. There is little job security and some have no employer-provided health care, and most toil in isolation, said Ai-Jen Poo, director of NDWA.

They are completely vulnerable to the whims of their employers. Some have good employers but some work in homes where they earn 50 cents an hour and work around the clock.

At the global and local levels, officials are beginning to recognize the need to protect domestic workers. Earlier this month, the New York State Senate passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, guaranteeing better working conditions for domestic workers. In California, a Bill of Rights resolution for domestic employees has been introduced in the state legislature.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) this month took a giant step forward in the fight to create workplace justice for the millions of housekeepers, nannies and other domestic workers around the world. At its International Labor Conference the ILO began the process to establish a first-ever international standard (“convention”) to protect the rights of domestic workers.

Nadia Marin-Molina with the NDLON said the most common problem for day laborers is wage theft.

The employer will say, “We’ll pay you tomorrow,” and then the employer never  shows up. Sometimes we have to go to court to get their money.

NDLON and Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) are working to stop wage theft among mostly immigrant low-wage workers. The nation’s economy suffers when millions of workers are denied their just pay, IWJ Executive Director Kim Bobo said in a workshop on faith and labor. It is also a moral issue, she added, since every major faith group has some variation of the commandment that “Thou shalt not steal.”

On June 25, faith activists at the forum led a protest against JPMorgan Chase & Co., calling on the Wall Street financial institution to declare a moratorium on foreclosures in Michigan and sever its ties with R.J. Reynolds. The tobacco giant refuses to meet with the Farm Labor Organization Committee (FLOC) to discuss the slave-labor working conditions of contract growers in North Carolina.

Throughout the week, workers and union staff took the lead in discussions on building communities by rebuilding U.S. manufacturing and on the fights for justice for domestic workers, Immokalee farm workers, immigrant workers and sweatshop workers. Activists talked about strategies for gaining full employment in a new economy, changing our trade policies and creating safe workplaces.

The forum followed the Great Labor Arts Exchange, which was held in Detroit, the first time in three decades that it was produced on the road.

This article was first published by AFL-CIO Now Blog.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He has also been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Author photo by Joe Kekeris.

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