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California Domestic Workers Fight To End Exclusion From National Workplace Protections

Soccoro Diaz is a domestic worker and worker leader at the Women’s Action and Solidarity Alliance (ALMAS). After fires devastated Santa Rosa in northern California, Diaz says she was forced to work “cleaning homes in the evacuation zone.”

“I got very sick and got very strong physical reactions being exposed to smoke and toxic ash. It got me sick for several days,” Diaz told Shadowproof.

The experience of working in such dangerous conditions made her more passionate about the safety of domestic workers.

“There is no reason to be sent to work in unsafe conditions without proper protection, and without pay that really merits the risk you’re putting yourself through,” Diaz added.

Diaz is one of several domestic workers, who supports a bill in California called the Health and Safety for All Workers Act, which is before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The bill would amend the California Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1973 (CAL-OSHA), which currently excludes domestic workers.

On June 18, the committee will announce which bills will move on to a full Senate vote. A full vote will occur at the end of June.

This legislation was co-sponsored by Equal Rights Advocates, the California Domestic Worker Coalition, Worksafe, and the California Employment Lawyers Association.

It would provide domestic workers with the same necessary safety protections as other workers in the state, including personal protective equipment (PPE), health and safety training, and legal protection against retaliation should they need to advocate for their own health and safety in their workplace.

Senator Maria Elena Durazo, who authored the bill, said, “The fact that the Senate Labor Committee passed this bill indicates that it is the right thing to do, especially under the circumstances of COVID-19 and fire season.”

Over 300,000 Domestic Workers In California

Domestic workers have long been excluded from nationwide worker protections.

According to Rhacel Parrenas, a professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California, the exclusion of domestic workers from CAL-OSHA goes “back to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 during the New Deal. It excluded domestic workers and agricultural workers, jobs dominated by Black people.”

This exclusion was also seen in the 1935 National Labor Relations Act and continued up until the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act. Yet, throughout the 20th century, Black and non-white women comprised the majority of domestic workers within the United States.

There are 2.5 million domestic workers within the U.S., and according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, over 90 percent of domestic workers, including caregivers, house cleaners, nannies, and home health aides, are women. The vast majority are minorities and immigrants.

According to Durazo, there are over 300,000 domestic workers in California with two million households employing domestic workers. That number is expected to grow 52 percent by 2022.

Domestic workers are overwhelmingly low-wage workers, with as many as 23.4 percent of those workers living under the poverty line. This is troubling because most domestic workers are also the primary breadwinners for their families.

With the  COVID-19 pandemic still raging throughout California, many domestic workers have been left without proper PPE, fearing for the health and safety of themselves and their loved ones. Yet, prior to COVID-19, domestic workers were without proper PPE during the Californian wildfires of 2018, leaving them vulnerable to toxic ash and smoke.

Not only would this legislation make it mandatory for workplaces to provide PPE for all domestic workers within California, but it would also inform and educate workers about the coronavirus pandemic.

‘Our Work Needs To Be Valued And Protected’

Diaz’s passion surrounding the bill was inspired by her personal life during the pandemic. Her brother was diagnosed with COVID-19 and was hospitalized in the intensive care unit (ICU) for weeks.

“I’m thinking that when he gets out of hospital he’ll need a homecare worker, and when I think of that person, it makes me think of all the homecare workers who are part of our coalition and feel at risk and not protected,” Diaz stated. “It brings it closer to home that my family may need to hire someone like that. Our work needs to be valued and protected like other workers are protected.”

“Our right to occupational health and safety has been a long time exclusion. Ten years ago, we were fighting for domestic workers’ bill of rights. When we were trying to get the bill passed, they wouldn’t let us include occupational health and safety,” Diaz added.

Cha Murdock is a part-time caregiver and full-time worker at the Pilipino Workers Center, where she organizes caregivers through teaching them about their rights, protections, and laws.

Like Diaz, Murdock says she too was inspired by this pandemic to fight for the bill.

“A week before the shutdown, in early March, there was talk of coronavirus at the facility I was in and it was still open. Tons of people come and go inside the facility I work at.”

Murdock claimed that her boss had told her that they couldn’t protect her if she wanted to continue working. She chose to stop her part time work at the facility.

“I’d rather not work and protect myself than open myself to the virus. If I’m sick, I don’t have protection or health insurance, so all the money I earn will not be enough. I don’t want to get my husband sick,” Murdock shared.

House cleaners who are consistently exposed to toxic chemicals which affect their health and skin will benefit from the legislation, she added.

We Don’t Know When The Next Fire Is Going To Be

Since the pandemic, activism for domestic workers’ rights has moved online to Zoom, a video-chatting application that has soared in popularity.

“We have had to do lobbying in a way we were not used to. It was urgent to keep moving forward because we needed the bill to pass,” Diaz said. “We started doing everything in a virtual Zoom meeting. We did two lobby days with different legislators and a hearing with the labor committee, which was many hours of us on a Zoom call waiting for the labor committee to read the bill.”

Murdock especially enjoyed the experience of virtual lobbying and organizing her members and leaders for the labor committee’s Zoom call.

The Pilipino Workers Centre initiated town hall meetings to inform and educate members, said Murdock. “Every two weeks we do a meeting. We are increasing membership and educating people more and identifying funding groups with undocumented people.”

Galeon shared, “On a personal note, the bill will help the relationships between employers and employees. There will be a breakthrough of understanding. It’s about us and the future of domestic workers of this and the next generation.”

There is a Spanish saying that Diaz would like to share with lawmakers and elected officials, “Toca al corazon.”

“It means touch your heart and think of yourself as a human being, who may get sick and need a homecare worker. They need protection and to have their work valued.”

“We don’t know when the next fire is going to be or how long COVID-19 will last,” Diaz continued. “I think about how if we were included in CAL-OSHA I wouldn’t have gotten sick after the fires. So many people I know wouldn’t have gotten sick because we would have a right to protection.”

It made Diaz “feel good” to see four out of five members of the labor committee vote to advance the bill.

“I’m going to continue [to be] in this fight until we pass this law. Thousands of us need this protection, and I hope that there is the support of legislators and the governor,” Diaz concluded.

Tavleen Tarrant

Tavleen Tarrant

Tavleen Tarrant is a freelance journalist passionate about social justice activism.