Giving Power to Domestic Workers: The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights

July 15, 2019

Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-CA) introduced the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights today, backed by the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

The bill would provide essential workplace rights and protections to a group of workers who have long been left out of basic standards for safety, security, pay, and well-being—in part because of exclusions that were codified in the New Deal. These rights include wage and overtime protections, access to paid time off, and protections from harassment and discrimination, along with the establishment of wage boards, which would bring domestic workers’ voices into their workplaces.

Domestic workers are among the lowest paid workers in the economy, and they often work alone in an informal capacity, where the potential for exploitation—from wage theft to sexual harassment—is high. Depending on the immigration status of a worker, the risks of speaking up when facing workplace abuse or exploitation are deeply consequential and can have implications far beyond the labor market. Raising wages and offering key protections for these workers would dramatically improve the standard of living for the mostly Black and brown women who work in this occupation—a group greatly disadvantaged in our economy and society more broadly.

The bill is comprehensive, ranging from giving domestic workers the tools to establish formal contracts with their employers to strengthening protections against retaliation; elements that are crucially important in raising standards for domestic workers—and the establishment of a wage and standards board is arguably the boldest component of the legislation. Supported by rigorous implementation and enforcement measures, the bill would safeguard the long-lasting benefits of a wage and standards board.

Establishing a wage and standards board would create an avenue for collective bargaining across the entire sector, rather than worksite by worksite—an immense achievement for a group of workers who are currently denied basic bargaining power. Wage and standards boards generally bring together stakeholders from government, workers, and management to establish workplace standards and wage floors. For a group of workers that has long been powerless on the job, establishing a formal mechanism for them to organize collectively is crucial progress.

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is an integral part of a broader set of reforms necessary to ensure that all workers have power and agency in the workplace. To create a 21st century labor market that works for all, empowering those with the least voice in their jobs to set the terms of their own economic fate is an enormous step forward.

In a follow-up issue brief to Left Behind, I analyze the domestic work and trucking sectors specifically and demonstrate how the structural problems throughout our economy are harming workers across industries. I also present a set of policy proposals that mirror many of the provisions put forward in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.