Domestic worker’s rights may pose financial challenge for the disabled

December 19, 2011

By Callie Shanafelt

New legislation, dubbed the “babysitter bill,” would actually give benefits mostly to domestic workers who are the sole breadwinners of their families – people like Maria Descancia, who cleans houses and offices for $8 an hour to support her six children as well as her father and siblings back in Mexico.

“For me and for many others, this bill of rights is so important because it gives us protection – it helps us live better, helps us work better,” Descancia said through a Spanish interpreter. “We have our own children and our own lives and we do this work in the shadows.”

The law, however, is controversial, and is drawing criticism, and some from unexpected quarters – other low-income people. Disability rights advocates say that the new legislation could make it hard for them to get the in-home help they need to live independently.

If signed into law, AB 889 would provide all domestic workers with overtime rights, workers compensation and access to a kitchen where they can cook and store their own food if they’ve worked five hours or more. It would also ensure live-in caregivers the right to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep if on call for 24 hours, one day off after five days of work and a clean bed that they don’t have to share.

The bill defines domestic workers as housekeepers, nannies and caregivers for children, people with disabilities and the elderly. It excludes underage baby-sitters, family member caregivers, licensed facility workers and state-subsidized In Home Supportive Services caregivers.

Maria Descancia is a member of Mujeres Unidas y Activas a grassroots organization that has formed a coalition with other labor organizations to advocate for this bill.

Mujeres Unidas y Activas teamed up with the DataCenter and the San Francisco Department of Public Health in 2007 to survey the working conditions of household workers. They found that 90% of those surveyed were working overtime but being paid regular wages. Twenty two percent reported that they were paid less than the wage agreed upon by the employer. Sixty-three percent said their work was dangerous or hazardous. Twenty percent said their employers had insulted or threatened them.

Domestic workers in the coalition held a meeting to brainstorm a list of rights they wanted put into law after the survey. Eventually, they were able to narrow the list from dozens to eleven basic points. They then approached Assembly member Tom Ammiano to sponsor the statewide Domestic Work Employee Equality, Fairness and Dignity Act.

Assembly member Ammiano has been focusing on immigrant rights issues and agreed to sponsor the bill because domestic workers are mainly women who’ve immigrated from Latin American countries.

“This is not just about workers rights, but about civil rights and women’s rights,” Ammiano said.

But the bill has had major opposition from industry organizations, Republican legislators and disability rights organizations.

The California Association for Health Services at Home, an association of home health care agencies and organizations, has been fighting against the bill with the position that it would halt job growth in their industry and force employers to hire domestic workers illegally.

Disability Rights California opposes the bill unless it is amended. They say it will put financial strain on people living with disabilities who are dependent on personal attendants. “It has unfortunately pitted groups against each other who are natural allies,” said Legislative Advocate Deborah Doctor.

People with disabilities are disproportionately low-income, Doctor said. Disability Rights California is afraid that if this population has to pay more for their personal attendants they would be forced to stop working and go on state benefits.

“That’s a lose-lose situation for everyone – the individual, society and the state budget,” according to Doctor.
The worst-case scenario, Doctor said, would be if someone living independently with a disability were forced to move into an institutional facility. But that would be unlikely, she added.

Some people with disabilities are speaking out in favor of the legislation. Nikki Brown-Booker depends on six personal attendants, but supports the changes in the law. “They do valuable work that makes me able to get up in morning, pay bills, go to work and cook breakfast,” said Brown-Booker who has a severe form of rheumatoid arthritis.
She joined the Hand in Hand Domestic Employer Association to support the bill.

Brown-Booker has a small psychotherapy practice in Oakland and is willing to pay the extra costs required by the bill.
“I don’t want to be insensitive to other people with disabilities that are concerned about financial hardship, but I feel that our attendants do such important work for us that I want to make sure that work is honored,” Brown-Booker said.
The bill is currently being held in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The fiscal summary of the committee notes that there are an estimated 200,000 domestic work employees in the state.

“This analysis estimates there will be a major increase in claims to the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) in the Department of Industrial Relations,” the summary says.

It cites a 2010 UCLA report Wage Theft and Workplace Violations in Los Angeles, which found that domestic workers already have high rates of minimum wage violations. The committee staff estimates that if one percent of domestic workers filed claims under the new law, it could cost the state more than $700,000 to employ new investigators.

When he proposed the bill, Ammiano expected it to take two years to pass without a veto from the governor. They’ve already removed a section requiring paid vacation leave for domestic workers. The bill will be opened again in January. In the meantime, Ammiano is meeting with disability rights groups and other legislators concerned to come to a compromise most palatable to all affected.

Disability Rights California would support the bill if people living with disabilities were exempted from the legislation, Deborah Doctor said. Katie Joaquin of the Domestic Workers Coalition said they want consider the needs of low-income people with disabilities, but opposed the blanket exclusion of an entire class of workers.

Ammiano is hopeful they can come to a resolution. “It takes time to get everyone on one page,” he said.

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