Seven-year journey to bring overtime protections to personal attendants

They work in the shadows of society and have been excluded from the most basic of labor protections. Yet those domestic workers who care for seniors, children and the disabled, have risen above their historic isolation, built an effective coalition and performed the seven years of heavy lifting that saw their struggle succeed. 

Starting January 1, personal attendants, mostly women and immigrants working for minimum wage, will receive overtime pay for the first time. Under the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, signed by Gov. Brown last fall, they will receive 1.5 times their regular rate of pay for more than 9 hours work in a day or 45 hours in a week.

Speaking through a Spanish translator at the CFT Leadership Conference on February 6, Sylvia Lopez, a domestic worker of 25 years, said, “It has been 75 years that we were excluded from labor laws. We need to unite to fight for a better life for women, our children and for immigrants.” 

Personal attendants are caregivers who, as live-in or live-out employees, spend a significant amount of time caring for children, the elderly or people with disabilities, and do not spend more than 20 percent of their time in a week performing non-caregiving duties such as housekeeping.
According to Katie Joaquin, campaign director for the California Domestic Workers Coalition, there are approximately 250,000 domestic workers in the state, their median wage is $10 an hour and 75 percent are primary breadwinners. A 2012 study found nearly one in four domestic workers reported having no food in their homes at some point in the previous month.

The exclusion of domestic workers from labor protections is rooted in the refusal of Southern Congressmen to include their African-American housekeepers and nannies in 1938 when they negotiated the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the landmark labor law enacting minimum wage and overtime.

When California began regulating labor protections for domestic work in 1976, the state’s Industrial Welfare Commission justified excluding personal attendants based on the rationale that caregiving work was done as “a source of rewarding activity” or “merely for supplemental income.” As a result, domestic workers who cared for property were given full wage and hour protections, while those who cared for people were not.

Now that the Bill of Rights has become law, the coalition is working to educate personal attendants so it can be universally implemented. The governor will convene a commission of domestic workers and employers to study the impact of the bill. The bill sunsets in 2017 if it is not extended or made permanent.

— By Jane Hundertmark, CFT Publications Director

California Domestic Workers Coalition shares strategies for success

Create the right structure for input and collaboration

Over the years, we learned how to strike the balance between coordination and autonomy. We learned the importance of having the right staff in place, creating a structure for domestic workers to make informed decisions and partner organizations to strategize, which created shared ownership.

Make your actions creative, colorful and celebratory

Domestic workers brought their children to actions, and wore colorful clothing. Every time the coalition was in Sacramento, legislators would feel it. Our movement was joyful and insistent.

Understand the importance of the grassroots working together

There’s no such thing as an unlikely ally. Our coalition partnered with employers of domestic workers, faith groups, women’s networks and unions. 
Know your target
We created visibility for this work that often operates in the shadows. We needed to make sure those images would land on the eyes of our targets —that key decision-makers saw and heard about it.

Capture the frame and tell the story your way

Create a buzz and tell the story. Our first attempt at legislation was tagged “the babysitter bill.” Framing this issue as correcting a long-standing exclusion helped us get traction.

Select the right champions

We chose Tom Ammiano — someone who was willing to push the boundaries, but also negotiate. Ammiano, a progressive from San Francisco, carried AB 241, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

Invest limited resources carefully

Initially we mobilized once a month in Sacramento — bringing 300 people for hearings — but that wasn’t feasible over time. So we asked ourselves, when do we really need people at the Capitol? We accepted that it may take many years to win.

Share your victories

Whenever there was a victory, a new ally, the bill getting out of committee, we shared it and involved all of our allies and members in each victory, creating a significant shift in public opinion over time. At the bill-signing, members of the coalition surrounded the governor, crying, thanking him. Brown was moved.