Legislation Pushed to Require Minimum Wage for Domestic Workers

| Media Coverage

For years, the more than 200,000 nannies, housekeepers and other domestic workers in New York State have been exempt from many basic labor protections.

But now 55 immigrant groups, labor unions and other organizations are trying to change that by pushing for legislation that would require a minimum wage of $14 an hour for the state’s domestic workers.

The legislation, called the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, would also require that these workers receive paid personal days, paid holidays, paid vacations, at least one day off each week, severance pay and 21 days’ advance notice before termination.

The bill’s supporters said yesterday that they would start a lobbying campaign today with a large meeting in Manhattan. Over the next two weeks, rallies, a march, a vigil and a trip to Albany to press lawmakers are planned.

Supporters of the bill say domestic workers deserve special protection because they are arguably the most invisible and most vulnerable workers in the state.

“These workers play a very important role in the state economy,” said Ai-jen Poo, the founder of Domestic Workers United, a Bronx-based advocacy group. “They work for the state’s professional class — lawyers, doctors, financial people, media people — and their work makes it possible for all these people to go to work every day.”

Because of behind-the-scenes work by Domestic Workers United, the bill has strong support among labor and immigrant groups; more than 95 percent of domestic workers in New York State are immigrants. The bill has 15 sponsors in the State Assembly, but even some supporters acknowledge that it might face rough going because the $14 minimum wage for domestic workers is much higher than the $7.15-an-hour statewide minimum wage.

The bill would also require employers to either provide health insurance or to pay domestic workers an additional $2 an hour.

Denis M. Hughes, president of the New York State A.F.L.-C.I.O., has lobbied for the bill, saying that domestic workers warrant special protection because they do not have the right to unionize under federal or state law. Domestic workers are also not covered by employment discrimination laws, occupational safety laws or the Family and Medical Leave Act.

“It is incumbent upon those in power to help those who have the least because they need our help the most,” Mr. Hughes said.

Marc Violette, a spokesman for Gov. Eliot Spitzer, declined to comment this week about the bill, citing the governor’s policy of commenting on legislation only after the Assembly and the Senate have passed it.

State officials say they have made clear to the bill’s supporters their discomfort with legislation that singles out a specific group for a higher minimum wage, especially one so much higher than the statewide minimum. (The bill initially calls for a $12 minimum, climbing to $14 in 2010.)

Ms. Poo said that many households already pay their nannies and housekeepers $14 an hour, although a survey of 547 domestic workers that her group conducted last year found that the median wage for domestic workers was $10 an hour. About one in six households paid more than $13.46 an hour, according to the survey.

Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright, a Manhattan Democrat, said he decided to introduce the bill partly because he was the grandson of domestic workers. He said he believed that a somewhat amended bill had a realistic chance of passage.

“We have to get into some legislative practicalities,” he said, “but some of those in the domestic workers’ movement don’t want to hear it.”

One problem the bill faces is finding a sponsor in the Senate. Nicholas A. Spano, a Westchester Republican, introduced the bill in the last session, but he failed to win re-election last November.

“I don’t think this bill is a good idea,” said E. J. McMahon, executive director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, an arm of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative policy group. “Any attempt like this to mandate wages, benefits and working conditions for a large number of entry-level workers can only have one result: fewer such jobs for people who need them.”

Mr. McMahon said the bill seemed to make assumptions about those who hire domestic workers. “The people who need to hire domestic workers are not only hedge-fund bonus babies who roll their cigars with $100 bills,” he said. “This bill could create a lot of stress for people who currently pay these workers fair wages.”

The bill would require that domestic workers receive nine paid holidays, five paid sick days, five paid personal days, two weeks of vacation after six months on the job and four weeks of vacation after five years of service — with the workers able to choose when to go on vacation.

Barbara Young, a nanny from Barbados who cares for a 5-year-old on the Upper West Side, said that in her previous job as a nanny on Long Island, her pay was low and it was very hard to support her children. She said that not having sick days or personal days was a big problem.

“Any time we have to take time off to go to a doctor, there is a threat of losing your job, and there’s no pay for the day you’re off from work,” she said. “I think domestic workers need protection. This job needs to be respected. There are a lot of abuses in the industry.”

Some workers complain of being forced to work seven days a week and not being paid time and a half for overtime.

“These folks are the invisible cogs that make the economic engines of New York work,” Assemblyman Wright said.

Read article here