News & Opinion » Feature

The Organizers

Inside the movement to empower nannies, housecleaners, and caregivers.



Juana Flores is a leader in the movement for the rights of domestic workers. She meets with government officials, testifies in the legislature, speaks on TV. But nineteen years ago, she didn't know that workers such as herself had any rights.

At the time, Flores was a recent immigrant from Mexico working as a nanny for two children. "They paid me $75 every fifteen days plus room and board," she recalled through a translator. "The mother worked at night, so I lived in the house. Besides caring for the children, I was made to clean the house and wash clothes. And I was the childcare provider 24 hours a day. I had to be available for the kids all the time. She would just say, 'go to your nanny.' After a month, two more kids came from 3 to 8 pm but there was no increase in pay.

"The worst part was the father all the time was talking to me about sexual things. He never touched me, but he was always talking about sex.

"I didn't realize I had the right to say anything because they were doing me a favor by providing work. I thought what was happening was normal."

Then a friend persuaded Flores to go to a meeting of Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), a Bay Area grassroots organization of Latina immigrants providing mutual support and policy advocacy on issues including domestic worker rights, immigrant rights, and domestic violence. "When I arrived at MUA my life totally changed," Flores said.

Flores left her former job. After she was trained in her rights, she was able to negotiate for better pay and started making $25 an hour. Before joining MUA, "I didn't know any of these rights existed," she said.

Like Flores, many domestic workers — housecleaners, nannies, caregivers for people with disabilities and the elderly — don't realize that they have legal rights as workers. The California Domestic Worker Coalition, which MUA helped found, estimates that one in four domestic workers are paid less than the minimum wage.

Because they often lack written work agreements and basic information about their rights, domestic workers "are uniquely vulnerable to workplace violations," according to a coalition fact sheet. "Because of the devaluation of domestic work as 'not real work,' many workers and employers do not consider that there are laws that apply to this industry."

That's why the coalition is pushing for $5 million in next year's state budget to create a Domestic Worker Rights Education and Outreach Program that would give grants to grassroots organizations like Mujeres Unidas y Activas (Women United and Active) to "provide education, outreach, and training to domestic work employees and employers on minimum wage, overtime, sick leave, record­keeping, retaliation," and the process for filing claims if a worker's rights are violated.

Along with Hand in Hand, an organization of employers of domestic workers, the coalition also is seeking funds for a study it hopes will pave the way for a program of state support for long-term care. These efforts are part of a national movement to provide more support for people who need care and better working conditions for domestic workers.

Since MUA, several other California groups, and a New York organization called Trabajadores Unidas formed the national Domestic Workers Alliance in 2007, these are only the latest in a series of campaigns in California and around the country. Eight states including California, plus the city of Seattle, have now passed Domestic Workers Bill of Rights laws, extending basic labor protections to people who work in private homes.

Historically in California, nannies and at-home caregivers were excluded from laws requiring workers' rights such as time-and-a-half pay for overtime, meal and rest breaks, health and safety laws, and more. For years the coalition and Hand in Hand campaigned for domestic workers to be included in these legal protections. Two bills passed the state legislature but were vetoed, first by Governor Schwarzenegger, then by Governor Brown. Finally, the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights was signed into law in 2013, then made permanent in 2016.

The law established some of the rights domestic workers campaigned for — overtime pay, meal and rest breaks, workers compensation, and protection from discrimination and unjust firing. Yet other rights the advocates hoped to include — paid sick time and vacation, the right to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, the right to cook your own food, cost of living increases — were dropped in negotiations before the bill passed.

Theoretically, house cleaners were already covered by some federal and state labor laws. Since 2015, all workers in California are entitled to up to three days a year paid sick leave.

"These rights exist on paper, but they're not being complied with," Flores said. That's why outreach and education are so important. With state funding, the work that organizations such as MUA and Hand in Hand already do could be extended.

That work is basic organizing. Housecleaner and active MUA member Maria de la Luz said she and other active members of MUA hand out flyers at schools, in parks, and on the street. "We also do outreach at food banks, set up information tables," de la Luz said through a translator. "We interact with people, ask if they know about their rights. Then we do calls to follow up, reach the workers and find out more about them. We invite them to participate in workshops on things like how to create a work contract, compensation, overtime.