Many workers have a hard time balancing work and family, but the workers who take care of other people’s families have the hardest time of all. There are more than 2.5 million domestic workers in the United States who work as nannies and maids. They care for other families’ homes and children while they are separated from their own children, often by a continent. They work long hours without overtime pay and, more often than not, without health benefits.
In the most recent edition of Labor Family News, Andrea Cristina Mercado of Mujeres Unidas y Activas (Active and United Women, MUA) and Ai-Jen Poo of Domestic Workers United** (DWU) tell the story of Maria, a Central American woman who came to New York as a domestic worker to support her family.
Maria’s story is heart-wrenching but not uncommon. Without the protection of a union, without even the protection of most state and federal labor laws, her employers required her to work 18 hours a day, six days a week for less than $3 an hour. She lived in the basement of her employer’s home, where a broken sewage system flooded the floor by her bed. Bad as these conditions were, Maria was devastated when her employer fired her without notice or severance pay, leaving her with nowhere to go. According to Maria:
I asked her for permission to stay in the house that night so I could go out and find another place to live. I could not even sleep thinking about where I would go next. No one can imagine what I went through that night.
Until recently, it was practically impossible for domestic workers like Maria to fight back when treated unjustly. Labor laws explicitly excluded them from protection. In spite of these obstacles, domestic workers in New York celebrated a major victory in July when a new law extending state labor protections to home-based nannies and housekeepers went into effect. New York State’s law is the first of its kind in the United States. Now organizers are building momentum to enact a similar law in California.
As DWU and MUA build the campaign for domestic worker rights, they are seeking union support. Unions can play a key role in passing legislation in the same way they have been strong supporters of family leave and caregivers’ rights. Unions are in the unique position of being advocates for workers struggling to care for their families as well as advocating for the people who help make this possible. Go to www.mujeresunidas.net to find out how your union can get involved. It is time for us to stand together in support of the most vulnerable workers.
**DWU should not be confused with the UDW Homecare Providers Union, a.k.a. United Domestic Workers of America. UDW represents more than 65,000 homecare providers who work in California under the state's In Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program. UDW was founded in 1979 by some of the same people who helped Cesar Chavez found the United Farm Workers. It was only the third American union founded by African Americans or Hispanics.