Maria del Carmen currently works for 25 different bosses across the city of Philadelphia. She’s been a domestic worker for 24 years, employed as a housecleaner, a nanny, and an eldercare provider. “I like doing my job well so that my bosses are happy and their things are taken care of,” she said in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter.
But her work is grueling and at times dangerous. Sometimes she isn’t paid for the work she does. Even when she is paid what she’s owed, it isn’t much and comes without any benefits.
She doesn’t get any paid time off; once when she had to stay home to care for her sick son, one of her employers got extremely angry with her. “I have to work when their kids are sick and they give me their viruses, but I can’t stay home when they give them to mine,” she noted.
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She’s experienced discrimination for speaking Spanish and being Latina, she said, including a client who told her they weren’t happy her son went to the same high school as their son. Years ago, she was even the victim of sexual abuse. Bosses have undressed in front of her and insinuated that they wanted to have sex with her. “I actually had to stop working, which was a financial hardship,” she said. “That kind of abuse impacts all parts of your life, including with your family … We bring the heaviness of these abuses home.”
But there wasn’t much that she could do about it. Domestic workers were the only type of worker excluded from Philadelphia’s antidiscrimination protections. “No habia una ley,” she said; there was no law protecting her or offering her recourse.
That will soon change. Since the middle of 2018, when the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance was formed, del Carmen and other domestic workers in her city have had one goal: Establishing a domestic workers bill of rights to include them in basic labor protections and even grant them powerful new ones. On October 31, that goal was achieved when the Philadelphia city council unanimously passed a bill establishing rights for the city’s 16,000 housekeepers and caregivers. It’s the 10th such law in the country, joining those in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, Oregon, and Seattle.
Philadelphia’s bill of rights does three key things. First, it makes sure domestic workers are included in basic labor standards such as protection from racial, gender, age, national origin, and language discrimination, as well as the right to meal and rest breaks. It also goes above that floor to require that domestic workers be given legally binding written contracts in both English and their preferred language outlining job responsibilities, hours, and payment schedules. Employers also have to give domestic workers at least two weeks’ notice of termination, protect their privacy, and provide a notice of their rights.
But the third facet is the most radical: The city will create the country’s first-ever portable paid time off benefit system. The bill establishes a right to get paid time off for all workers, no matter how many employers they have. With that in place, it mirrors the city’s existing paid sick leave ordinance, which grants workers an hour of paid time off for every 40 they work.
Now, when a domestic worker puts in 40 hours across all of her jobs, she’ll be due an hour of paid time off, funded by prorated payments from each of her employers into a central benefit bank. Employers will have to contribute paid time off for any domestic workers they hire for five or more hours a month. The benefit bank will still be hers to claim even if she changes clients later on.The bank will be coordinated not by domestic workers themselves or even their employers, but through technology developed by a third-party vendor. The employers “don’t need to be talking to each other, and the worker doesn’t need to be coordinating between them either,” explained Nicole Kligerman, director of the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance.
“The 20th century social safety net system is based on one person and one employer,” Kligerman noted. But many people now work in arrangements that don’t fit into that mold – working in the so-called “gig economy” or classified (and misclassified) as independent contractors – which means they’re denied standard workplace benefits. Domestic workers hope their portable paid time off system can offer a new alternative.
Domestic workers are “the original gig economy workers,” Kligerman said, and they “can and always have led the way” on labor reform. But such a system could easily be imagined for other workers with more than one employer. “The implications are obviously really big,” she said. Ride share drivers, for example, are already looking into it. “We’re excited to be a guinea pig.”
Del Carmen was involved in lobbying for and crafting the bill of rights. “At times it was really difficult, some of [the council members] even ran away from us,” she said. But they kept showing up, week after week. “We fought as a team until we won.”
The feeling when the bill passed unanimously, including yes votes from the three Republicans on the city council? “Maravilloso,” she said. All of the provisions she and other domestic workers were fighting for made it into the final bill. “It really is complete,” she said. “And now other states can copy us.”
Had the bill of rights been in place 25 years ago, “my life would have been much easier,” del Carmen said. “I wouldn’t have shed so many tears for all of the things that happened to me.”
Del Carmen has already seen the impact of the newly passed bill of rights. All of her clients are working on creating a written contract. “I told them if I don’t sign a contract, I’m not going to work for them anymore,” she said.
She’s also very excited about finally getting some paid time off from work. “I’ve never had it,” she noted. “I’m just going to be at home enjoying my house. I’ve never been able to do that.”