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Domestic Workers Are on the Frontlines of Labor Organizing in California

CDWC is building the political power and cultivating the leadership of domestic workers. (Photo by Brooke Anderson.)

The California Domestic Workers Coalition organizes and advocates for the rights of over 325,000 domestic workers who work as nannies, house cleaners and caregivers for the young, infirm, elderly and disabled people in homes across the state.

"Care work is sacred work. Care workers take care of our most precious people and things,” explains Director Kimberly Alvarenga. And while care work is the fastest growing industry in the country, domestic workers remain one of the most exploited, undervalued and unprotected workers in California.  

The California Domestic Worker Coalition is on a mission to change hearts, minds and laws so that our society and economy can begin valuing the work of care and respecting the workers who are predominantly immigrant women of color.

Their vision is simple: Care jobs should be living wage jobs. Domestic workers should have the same benefits and protections that workers in other industries have. Not more, not less.

“Our vision is that women who do this work do not have to fight to be included in basic rights. They have an economic security net. They are able to negotiate, have a contract, and an equal employer-employee relationship where the employer values their work, treats them as professionals, and respects their personal and occupational boundaries," said Alvarenga. 

“I'm thinking of domestic worker families who would be able to take a day off when their families become ill, have better access to education, have better access to healthcare. In many ways, their whole lives would be changed. That's what we envision, a world where domestic work is valued, is respected.”

While domestic workers do the work that makes all other work possible, they are earning poverty wages. UCLA’s survey of 500 caregivers found the median hourly rate was $14.50, while those paid a flat rate earned a median of $9.17 an hour. In one of the state’s most shocking wage theft cases, Filipino women at a “board and care” chain were making as little as $2.40 an hour. 

Undervaluing of this essential work has its origins in slavery and racism. In 1938, domestic workers were written out of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which granted minimum wage and overtime protections to all U.S. workers. Southern lawmakers refused to pass the Act unless two groups were excluded: farmworkers and domestic workers.

“This legacy of exclusion is rooted in this country's legacy of enslavement and racism. When this country was founded, the women who did this work were Black women. So we continue with this legacy. Now it is women of other nationalities—immigrant women from many nationalities—that do this work.”

Today, 95 percent of domestic workers are women and majority of them are women or color and immigrant women. A significant number of them are undocumented. Because this work is almost exclusively done by women and because it’s done in private homes, it is perceived as "help" and not as a real profession. The state has established no labor guidelines for this workforce, and most private individuals who employ them do not see themselves—or act—as employers, which is what they are. 

In this audio clip, Alvarenga explains that valuing the work of care has the potential to heal our country.

Kimberly Alvarenga bio photo
We don't want immigrant workers to depend on the good heart or the potential goodwill of an employer in order to have health and safety.

Kimberly Alvarenga, CDWC

The pandemic and the wildfires in California hit domestic workers particularly hard. They revealed just how vulnerable and neglected these essential workers were. Domestic workers were three times as likely to get COVID-19 compared with the state’s general population, according to research at UC Davis. Just one in five domestic workers received health insurance coverage through a job and most lacked paid leave when they got sick. Plus, 36 percent lost all work and almost half lost some of their work. Since the workforce has a lot of undocumented workers, those workers did not receive stimulus checks or enhanced unemployment benefits.

"On the one hand, most of them were let go. On the other hand, those who continued to work risked their health because they had to work, because they had no economic safety net. They worked in an environment where they were being exposed to COVID on a daily basis. So, we suffered the loss of many of our members. Our members suffered gravely economically, and continue to experience a lot of challenges. But, because they are so resilient, they continue to make a way."

During the pandemic, CDWC focused their advocacy work on health and safety policy advocacy and organizing. The state had no guidelines for employers or for workers around health and safety, both related to COVID-19, but also ongoing ergonomic issues, toxic chemicals in cleaning products, and injuries that happen with this physically demanding work.

In 2020, during the worst of the pandemic, CDWC introduced a bill to give domestic workers basic health and safety protections. The bill, The Health and Safety for All Workers Act (SB 1257) sought to remove the historical exclusion of domestic workers from labor laws, so that domestic workers could have the legal right to health and safety training and protective equipment, and to be protected against retaliation from their employers when asking for their rights to be respected. The bill was vetoed by Governor Newsom. Undeterred, they tried again in 2021. The bill was amended and it passed, but domestic workers did not receive their rights. 

To this day, workers don't have health and safety rights. Ultimately, we need laws. We don't want immigrant workers depending on the good heart or the good will of an employer in order to have health and safety.

Kimberly Alvarenga

The loss hurt. But they pivoted and started working on producing the first ever voluntary health and safety guidelines for employers.

"I say it's a first step because it really is. To this day, workers don't have health and safety rights. Ultimately, we need laws. We don't want immigrant workers depending on the good heart or the good will of an employer in order to have health and safety.”

These workers and labor activists are inexhaustible. After long shifts at work, they get on overnight buses that take them to Sacramento where they share their stories, educate our state legislators and make sure their voices and their solutions are heard in the halls of power. Ultimately, their aim is not to win individual policy, but to consistently build the political power and cultivate the leadership of domestic workers throughout California.

At a local level, the coalition is focusing on making paid sick leave easier to access for domestic workers in San Francisco. San Francisco gave domestic workers the right to paid sick leave back in 2007. However, this benefit was out of reach because it was difficult for workers to track their hours due to the nature of their work. In December 2021, the coalition helped develop and pass an ordinance to establish a benefits system app to track workers' hours across multiple employers, and allot one hour of sick time for every 30 hours of work. With other allies, CDWC is in the process of hiring a developer, doing community education and outreach work, and making sure that undocumented workers can safely use the app and access their benefits.

In this clip, Alvarenga talks about the San Francisco ordinance that CDWC helped pass.

Domestic workers are on the frontlines of labor organizing in California. They have built a vibrant, innovative and powerful movement led by and for low-income women of color. Their work of organizing, mobilizing, community building, community outreach and leadership development is truly “an endeavor of love.” They are out there, leading with their hearts and reimagining the future of work.

“In our 15 years as an organization, all of the bills we sponsored have been vetoed the first and the second time that we sponsored them. We're not defined by that. To us, it is about dismantling the systemic barriers to equity piece by piece, brick by brick, and being methodical about it while holding to our values, and organizing from a place of love and justice. We've been blessed with funders that share those values and see the arc of justice the same way that we do. It's an endeavor of love.”

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