Nannies, house cleaners, and other domestic workers in Seattle will soon have new minimum wage and work break guarantees under a law passed unanimously by the Seattle City Council today.
The law adds new labor protections for domestic workers and creates a new board of workers and their bosses to recommend future changes. The new rules are meant to protect “workers who are often left out, not included, intentionally excluded because of racist or sexist reasons,” said Council Member Teresa Mosqueda, who sponsored the legislation.
Labor advocates estimate there are about 33,000 domestic workers in Seattle, many of them women and immigrants. A survey by Working Washington of 174 gardeners, nannies, and house cleaners found that 70 percent of them worked directly for a household and more than half of them did not have a contract. Nearly 40 percent did not have paid sick days, despite Seattle’s sick and safe time law.
The law will cover workers who provide domestic services (nannies, gardeners, cooks, house cleaners, and home care workers) except those who work for a family member or work on an irregular and uncertain basis. Home care workers paid through public funds are also not covered.
Companies or individuals who hire domestic workers must pay them $11.50 to $14, depending on benefits and tips, according to the law. That is the same rate required of employers with fewer than 500 employees.
The law also establishes rest break requirements, including a 30-minute meal break for every five hours of work and a 10-minute break for every four hours worked. The 10-minute break must be paid; the meal break is unpaid unless the worker is required to be on call during that time. If the work makes it “impossible or infeasible” to take these breaks, the person who hired the worker must pay for missed breaks. If a worker lives or sleeps on site, they must get 24 hours of consecutive rest after every six consecutive work days.
The law also says people cannot keep the immigration documents or other personal effects for domestic workers they hire.
“Right now especially, we must stand up for our most vulnerable workers regardless of documentation," Mosqueda said. The bill begins to “lift this population out of the gray market and apply basic labor protections,” Mosqueda said.
The law passed 7-0. Council Members Lisa Herbold and Mike O'Brien were absent. Labor groups including Working Washington and SEIU 775, which represents home health care workers, advocated for the law’s passage. The Seattle Human Rights Commission also supports new protections for domestic workers.
At council meetings in recent months, domestic workers have described enduring sexual harassment on top of low pay, wage theft, and few benefits or protections. The bill passed Monday does not address sexual harassment, but Herbold plans to introduce legislation next month expanding harassment and assault protections for domestic workers.
Etelbina Hauser, a Honduran immigrant and house cleaner, described a man whose house she cleaned exposing himself to her while she cleaned his bathroom. “I suffered physical and sexual abuse since I was a little girl, but I never imagined this would continue to happen to me in my place of work,” Hauser told the city council through an interpreter Monday.
Some domestic workers are already classified as employees, meaning they should be covered by Seattle’s minimum wage and other labor laws. But advocates say domestic workers may not know their rights, meaning these rules can go unenforced. Workers classified as independent contractors are not currently guaranteed a minimum wage by federal law. The new law will apply to domestic workers who are employees and independent contractors.
Federal law giving workers the right to unionize exempts domestic workers and independent contractors. As contract work has become more common, including in the so-called “gig economy,” cities like Seattle have looked for ways to locally expand more rights to those workers. States across the country, including Oregon and New York, have passed similar protections for domestic workers. Seattle is the first city to pass domestic worker protections, according to the council.
The city’s Office of Labor Standards will enforce the new law, but it's unclear how much that enforcement will cost. The city's budget office estimated OLS would need about $539,000 to fund up to four new positions and enforce the rules. The council estimated OLS would need only one new position and $149,000.
The legislation only begins to address demands made by domestic workers and worker advocates. During public testimony, domestic workers urged city council members to also guarantee them overtime pay and sick time. Mosqueda called the bill a "first step."
A new Domestic Worker Standards Board will include domestic workers, people who hire domestic workers, and worker organization representatives. That board will consider future regulations and make recommendations to the council. A city council committee will be required to "consider" and "respond" to the board's recommendations within six months.
House cleaner Maria Luisa Cruz told the city council Monday the city should help provide a retirement program for domestic workers.
“I am not that young anymore and I’ve cleaned homes for many years,” Cruz said through a translator. “I ask myself: What will happen when I can no longer work?”