There are more than 200,000 workplaces in New York State where fundamental labor standards do not apply, not even in theory. These are not sweatshops or salt mines. They are private homes, where housekeepers, nannies and caregivers for the elderly do work as important as it is isolated and unprotected.
The exclusion is a relic of the New Deal, when labor protections like overtime pay were written specifically to exclude domestic and farm labor. From exclusion it can be a short distance to abuse: to long hours, low pay, dehumanizing treatment, physical and sexual harassment.
Domestic workers and their advocates in New York have been pressing for reforms. They have been telling their stories in Albany and across the state and steadily gathering support for a Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights. The legislation, the first of its kind in the nation, would reform state labor law to provide basic protections like time-and-a-half pay for every hour over a 40-hour week; one day off a week; paid vacation and sick days; severance pay and health coverage – and a means of enforcing these standards in court.
Most other workers take these standards for granted. They don't know what it's like to have to show up for work sick rather than be fired, to be denied privacy and dignity, to be powerless to demand decent treatment from their employers.
Backers of the bill had been confident that this could finally be the year for a groundbreaking victory, at least before the recent power struggle brought the Capitol to new depths of shame, ridicule and paralysis.
If the Legislature decides to return to its senses and start passing meaningful legislation that improves New Yorkers' lives, it should include the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights. Albany, which has not been able to govern its way out of a paper bag, should at least be able to bestow some fundamental rights and protections on the invisible workers whose labors are a cornerstone of the New York economy.
Source: Editorial of The New York Times, 14 June 2009