After four years of fighting for their rights, domestic workers are on the cusp of victory

A group of people in yellow shirts stand behind a banner that calls on the D.C. Council to pass the domestic workers bill of rights.

Members of the D.C. chapter of the National Domestic Worker Alliance rally in front of the Wilson Building on Nov. 10. Photo by Annemarie Cuccia.

As Yeny finished a recent 16-hour workday, she discovered she’d lost money. 

Yeny, who’s being referred to by just her first name to prevent retaliation, works construction and child care jobs as a domestic worker in D.C. That day, she and her husband worked on a house from 8 a.m. until midnight. They left their daughter at home with a babysitter, hoping to make enough to pay the sitter and part of next month’s rent.

But the employer refused to pay Yeny and her husband for their hours of work. Already exhausted and unsure of what the informal agreement entitled her to, Yeny went home empty-handed. 

“We work because we need that money to pay our bills,” Yeny, who has worked in D.C. for nine years, said. “We couldn’t provide for our family because we were working for people who didn’t care about domestic workers.” 

Dozens of the 9,000 domestic workers in D.C. who work in child care, elder care, housekeeping and other home-based tasks shared stories similar to Yeny’s in public testimony earlier this year on D.C. Council legislation that’s poised for a vote next week. 

Predominantly women of color, domestic workers work in private and often on a part-time or contracted basis. Domestic workers are excluded from some of D.C.’s labor laws and left without legal recourse. Though domestic workers are legally supposed to be paid the minimum wage and qualify for paid leave, workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance, it’s common for employers to refuse to recognize those rights. 

The behind-closed-doors nature of caretaking or cleaning leads to labor exploitation, according to domestic workers and their advocates. Without hours, responsibilities or time off specified in writing, employers often pressure the workers to do tasks outside of their original agreement. Some stay silent when they aren’t paid or are asked to work without breaks, fearing retaliation.

For years, Yeny and other domestic workers have been asking D.C. to enshrine their rights as employees, mandate contracts, and hold employers accountable. Now that goal is in reach, as the Domestic Worker Employment Rights Amendment Act of 2022 is ready to advance to an initial vote by the full D.C. Council on Dec. 6 after winning support from three committees in recent weeks. The bill has three main provisions: It explicitly grants domestic workers basic human rights protections, requires employers and employees to sign contracts to define work scope, and authorizes grants to community organizations to publicize the requirements.

If passed, the bill would require any person or agency that employs a domestic worker for more than five hours a month to sign an agreement laying out duties, hours, pay, breaks and leave policies. The D.C. government would provide templates in English and Spanish, and any employer who violates this provision would be fined at least $250. 

But if the council doesn’t pass the bill in December, the legislation will expire at the end of Council Period 24, and Yeny and her fellow organizers will have to start over. 

The routine abuse of domestic workers


Throughout their advocacy for the bill, members of the DMV chapter of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) shared a litany of complaints about the way employers exploit domestic workers. In one instance, an employer broke an agreement to provide meals to their one live-in caretaker by leaving them with just two slices of pizza for a whole weekend. On another occasion, an employer asked a domestic worker to spend an additional 15 hours on the job one week but neglected to pay them in full for the extra work. Workers who became pregnant were offered a choice: get an abortion, or be fired. Without formal contracts, domestic workers say they often have to accept the abuses, or miss out on a paycheck. 

“If I were to tell you my whole story, I think it would tire you,” Dulce, a worker leader with the local NDWA member, said at a rally on Nov. 10. After Dulce fell and broke her arm while cleaning at work, her employer fired her. She was unable to work for months while recovering, she told the assembled crowd next to the John A. Wilson Building. 

Some of these abuses are already illegal. But domestic workers are left out of various labor protections, including those under D.C.’s sweeping Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on race, gender and 15 other traits. “This exclusion is a vestige of slavery and the expectation that household labor be performed for free by Black women,” Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George argued at the bill’s markup in the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development. 

More than 90% of D.C.’s domestic workers are women, and just under 80% are people of color, according to NDWA. Over half are immigrants, and many domestic workers say they’ve been harassed for speaking limited English. 

“There is a lot of discrimination, just for the fact of being a domestic worker and also for being Latino or any other race, they value you less,” Yeny said of employers. 

A four-year fight


As NDWA members concluded their Nov. 10 rally, chants of “Estamos en la lucha” and “¿Cuando luchamos? Ganamos” — “We’re in the fight” and “When we fight? We win” — broke through the traffic surrounding the Wilson Building. Over the four years NDWA pushed for the domestic workers bill of rights, its members were a near-constant presence in council offices and hearing rooms, so much so that At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who introduced the bill, often jokes that she sees NDWA organizers in her dreams. 

The group, led by an elected steering committee of domestic workers, saw its initial measure of success in 2019 when the first bill defining the rights of domestic workers was introduced. Though 11 council members signed onto the bill, it never received a hearing. 

Silverman introduced the current bill on March 15 of this year after a town hall and social media campaign led by NDWA. The bill was co-introduced by eight council members and backed by dozens of faith organizations, as well as some employers. Nearly 100 people testified in support of the bill at a labor committee hearing this past June. 

Since Silverman heads the labor committee and pledged to act on the bill, it seemed like the measure would easily advance to the full council. But Council Chair Phil Mendelson surprised NDWA members over the summer by referring the bill to two other committees; it’s unusual for the chair to re-refer bills so late in the process.

The Committee on Labor and Workforce Development and the Committee on Government Operations and Procurement each passed a revised version of the bill on Oct. 21. The Committee on Business and Economic Development passed the same version on Nov. 17, after the NDWA rally urging the committee to act on the bill. To become law, the legislation must be approved by the council at legislative meetings on both Dec. 6 and Dec. 20, though Mendelson’s office has not yet released agendas for those meetings. It would then go to the mayor and Congress for their review. 

Revised bill prevents retaliation 


The bill now before the council is similar to the one Silverman introduced in March. But council staff added new anti-retaliation, mediation, and human rights provisions in response to issues raised at the public hearing. 

Philadelphia acted in 2019 to require contracts between domestic workers and their employers, said Alana Eichner, the co-director of NDWA’s DMV chapter. But workers have been fired when requesting the legally required contracts. To get ahead of this concern, the bill now makes it illegal for employers to retaliate against domestic workers who file a complaint or ask for a contract, with a fine of at least $500 for any retaliation. 

The revised bill also includes a provision specifically allowing workers who want to continue at their job to reach an agreement with their employers to fix any violations, such as rewriting a contract that doesn’t include break times. Finally, the bill allows domestic workers to file complaints against employers without disclosing their immigration status, a concern for some undocumented domestic workers. 

In the anti-discrimination section, which adds domestic workers to D.C.’s Human Rights Act, the bill now includes a small carve-out — called a bona fide occupational qualification — to allow employers to hire workers of a certain sex for sensitive caretaking tasks like bathing. 

In total, the bill is estimated to cost $740,000 the first year it is implemented and $2.5 million over the next five years. The cost comes mainly from the community grants, the need for new employees at the Department of Employment Services and the Office of Human Rights, and funding for translation services and outreach materials. If the bill is passed, NDWA will have to fight for the funding to be included in next year’s budget. And if it isn’t passed or funded, members will have to figure out a new strategy, Eichner said. 

While Yeny waits, she’s constantly reminded of how much she hopes the bill passes. Just a few weeks ago, another employer stiffed her on wages after spraying her with cleaning solution for several minutes. 

“When we came to this country we came with goals, with desires to create better lives for ourselves, but we found that people treated us as if we were nothing,” Yeny said. “With this bill of rights, we will have support. We will be respected. We will have something that protects us from people who don’t care if they pay us or not.” 

Quotes from Yeny and Dulce were translated from Spanish. 

This article was co-published with The DC Line. 

Annemarie Cuccia covers D.C. government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. This joint position was made possible by The Nash Foundation and individual contributors.

Issues |Abuse|Jobs

Region |Washington DC

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