A new report gives a clearer picture of the challenges faced by domestic workers in Seattle and offers recommendations for the city council’s next labor policy: a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.
The report, produced by Working Washington, is based on surveys with 174 nannies, house cleaners, and gardeners. That’s out of an estimated 30,000 domestic workers in the city.
The report's findings are stark, detailing a profession with low pay, few benefits and little to no recourse when workers encounter abuse or wage theft. Women of color who work as domestic workers, a majority in the field, face disproportionate hardships.
On the same day as the report’s release, domestic workers testified for the first time before the Seattle city council committee on Housing, Health, Energy and Workers’ Rights, which is chaired by council member Teresa Mosqueda.
According to the report, about 58 percent of domestic workers in Seattle make less than the federal poverty line, according to guidelines set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Meanwhile, 94 percent don’t make a living wage.
Domestic workers also face poor working conditions, including dangers from physical labor, wage theft and harassment, according to the report. One-in-five in Seattle have been seriously injured on the job or have dealt with wage theft. Almost as many have been harassed or abused at work. Workers of color and workers who don’t speak English face higher rates of harassment.
Etelbina Hauser, one of the domestic workers who testified before the council committee today, said that she experienced three instances of sexual harassment on the job during her first three weeks of work.
"One day, while I was cleaning, my male employer asked me to come to the bathroom to replenish the toilet paper. I found the request strange, but did it anyway. He opened the door to the bathroom, naked, touching himself while maliciously smiling,” Hauser said. Hauser added that when she called the man’s wife to say she was quitting over the incident, the wife did not believe her and the family never paid her last paycheck of $250.
It’s super tough to organize and advocate for domestic workers because they most often work alone in private homes, often without written contracts or set schedules. More than half of domestic workers don’t have a contract. And as usual, the situation is worse for workers of color, 88 percent of whom don’t have their job duties or pay in writing, the report states.
Benefits for domestic workers are abysmal. Thirty-nine percent of domestic workers in the city don’t have paid sick days and 94 percent don’t have access to paid family health insurance. Eighty-five percent don’t have workers’ comp.
Marcela Dias, who testified before the council committee today, said she once paid $800 out of her own pocket to cover a radiography for a chest infection. She did not get paid for the days she took off to see a doctor and recover.
Adelaida Blanco, another worker who testified today, described feeling a sharp pain in her body one day at work while she was pregnant. She said her employer did not let her take time off over the injury. "Because of the continued strain on my body, one day I had lower back pain and bleeding. I thought I had a miscarriage,” Blanco said. Her employer told her to take a four-week break from work, but she could not due to mounting hospital bills.
Working Washington offers a number of recommendations for the council, as council members consider what will go in their Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. First, they recommend creating a special council—composed of domestic workers, employers, and city officials—that will be tasked with setting domestic workers industry standards for wages and working conditions. According to Sage Wilson, a spokesperson for Working Washington, this would be a “big new step” in labor policy.
Additional recommendations are borrowed from other jurisdictions—including California and New York—that have implemented domestic workers protections. Among those are: Closing loopholes that exempt domestic workers from city and state employment laws, requiring written employment contracts, implementing training and wage scales, and a creating a portable benefits system.
A Domestic Workers Bill of Rights will likely have broad support from the city council and Mayor Jenny Durkan. On the campaign trail, Durkan proposed a plan that would give domestic workers overtime pay, breaks, and rest. Council members Mosqueda and Lisa Herbold stood alongside domestic workers as they launched their campaign for stronger protections in December.