Many people who are financially well off think nothing of hiring housekeepers and nannies to help make their day-to-day lives run more smoothly. In the best scenarios, these domestic employees become part of the family and are treated with a great deal of love and respect. However, the picture is not always so rosy; we hear reports all the time of domestic employees that have been harassed, overworked, and abused. Even in less extreme circumstances, workers are sometimes paid a pittance (such as $5 per hour) and are forbidden from doing normal things such as speaking in their native language. According to a report in the Statesman Journal, the Oregon House of Representatives recently passed a bill that aims to prevent some of these worst-case scenarios, as well as to provide more general employee protections for domestic workers.
Why Specific Protections for Domestic Laborers?
Domestic laborers – approximately 10,000 of whom currently live and work in Oregon – are often female immigrants who are hired without contracts. The fact that they work in private homes without much outside regulation, combined with the fact that they have not had many legal protections until now, has left domestic workers uniquely vulnerable to mistreatment. The new bill aims to require labor protections, including overtime pay and meal breaks, for housekeepers, nannies and in-home cooks.
It might be surprising to realize that the protections in this bill have not been provided to domestic workers before, especially given the fact that the National Labor Relations Act established basic federal labor protections back in 1935. However, in order to get support from the Southern members of Congress at the time, both agricultural laborers and domestic workers were left out of that bill. Now, if this bill makes it through the state Senate, Oregon will become the third state, after New York and Hawaii, to pass a bill with protections for domestic laborers; California and Illinois, among other states, are also considering passing similar legislation.
While advocates of the bill – including its primary sponsor, Representative Sara Gelser (Democrat from Corvallis) – believe that the bill is essential to providing basic protections to domestic workers, not all members of the House were so persuaded. The bill passed by a fairly narrow margin, 32 to 28, partially because of opponents such as Representative Bill Kennemer (Republican of Oregon City) who believe that the bill’s language is too vague and broadly written, and could make employers too easily in violation of its requirements.
What Does the New Bill Say?
Under the new bill, domestic employees have several new rights and employers have several new responsibilities. However, the bill has its limitations and not everyone is included, nor is every problem addressed.
Employees are now specifically protected from:
-Verbal and physical abuse
-Harassment based on their gender, race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability
Employers must, among other things:
-Provide written notice about the hours, wages, and leave they intend to provide
-Pay overtime wages if their domestic help works over 40 hours in a week (44 hours if the domestic worker is employed as live-in help)
-Provide for at least eight hours of sleep per night and one day off per week
-Refrain from taking a domestic worker’s passport
Issues and people that are not covered:
-Domestic workers who work for home health agencies or in-home care agencies, or who are paid by the state, are not covered by the bill
-Workers who care for developmentally disabled people are not covered
-Babysitters under age 18 are not covered
-Independent contractors (such as window washers or yard workers) are not covered
-No minimum wage is set (though state law requires some domestic workers to be paid minimum wage)
Though the new bill is undoubtedly not perfect, it is an important step in ensuring that Oregon’s domestic workers are afforded the same basic labor protections as other workers across the state. Both employers and employees should watch the bill’s progress through the Senate in order to understand what the new laws will soon be. In the meantime, if you are a domestic employee who has been subject to unfair labor practices by your employer, please contact one of our attorneys, who can help you pursue your claim.