Op-Ed: Domestic Workers Are Only Asking for What’s Fair

Nena Ruiz

Basic decency. That’s what AB 889, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, was all about. And by vetoing the bill this past September 30, that’s what Governor Jerry Brown denied the people who work in California’s homes. People like me.

I’m a caregiver for an elderly woman. Most mornings, I rise at 5:30 m. I help her take her medicine, massage her muscles, bathe her, and cook and clean for her. Every night just after 10 p.m., I help her go to sleep. I finish cleaning and lay down, but I must stay alert. Once or twice a night she needs me.

I don’t get much rest. I am proud of the work I do helping this woman be independent and stay in her home. But we need a law protecting workers like me, granting us the basic protections given to almost every other worker in America. Without such a law, domestic workers will continue to labor under bad conditions with no overtime pay and no rests or breaks—we won’t even have the right to receive uninterrupted sleep at night.

Because I have sought help at a community organization, I know countless domestic workers who struggle in situations far worse than mine. I know about a woman who had to regularly “fake” bathroom breaks so she could eat her homemade burrito, because her employer denied her meal breaks. I’ve heard the tearful confessions of women who’ve been forced into sex by their employers, but are too afraid to seek justice because they might lose their jobs.

Some women work around the clock, with no fixed end time, supporting their own families by caring for others. Too many of us live in a kind of slavery, locked and isolated inside the homes we clean, doing the work that makes all other work possible. This work, and the workers who do it, have been discriminated against and undervalued for far too long.

But the tide is starting to turn. Domestic workers in California look to New York, the only state in the United States that currently extends basic labor protections to domestic workers, as an example. Celebrities like actresses Amy Poehler and Octavia Spencer have come out in support of our rights. And over the past week, domestic workers in California and their supporters across the state, and across the country, have sent Governor Brown 1,000 sponges, in the hopes that he’ll clean up his act on workers rights. Each sponge has a special message to Governor Brown, calling for respect and recognition for domestic work.

We’re not asking for special treatment—we only want the basic protections that most workers take for granted: Overtime compensations, meal and rest periods, and adequate sleep in appropriate conditions.

These protections may not seem like much to most people, but they would make a world of difference to us, the workers who offer warmth and caring hands to the children and elderly parents of our employers. It’s only fair.