Domestic Workers Gain New Protections From New York City Human Rights Law

After five years of community organizing, advocates succeed in getting law preventing employers from discriminating against domestic workers. The next challenge is effective implementation.

Employees attend an information workshop hosted by Carrolls Gardens Association

A human rights law for domestic workers by the New York City government finds a community ready to educate employers and employees. Taking effect March 12, the law will provide human rights protections for individuals providing personal care in households. However, because their work is often behind closed doors, they are susceptible to abuse. 

“Human rights law is so much broader than sexual harassment,” said Sulekha Frank, the lead advisor for low-wage and domestic workers at the New York City Commission on Human Rights. “Sexual harassment is one aspect of our law, but there are other categories that can be discriminated against.” The city government commission is tasked with implementing the law, called Intro 339-B. 

The law addresses discrimination in the domestic workplace, specifically homes, by providing safeguards in protected classes such as “actual or perceived age, race, color, national origin, gender, disability,” among others, including “reproductive health decisions.” There are 36 protected classes overall. Domestic work often includes child care, elder care, house cleaning and home health aides. 

Employers of domestic workers “are comfortable within their home,” Frank said. They may say sexist, racist or other discriminatory things. Since homes are now workplaces, employers cannot make discriminatory statements. 

“A big thing that can occur in the domestic worker world is slavery – flat out slavery,” said Ximena Frankel, the New York City organizer for Hand in Hand, a national network of employers of domestic workers. The group helping its members comply with the law.

“There is a long history of being overworked, which ties into wage theft,” Frankel said. Being overworked is just the beginning of discrimination. “Whether it’s a religious practice that they have that they cannot show up to a house that demonstrates their religion. Or pregnancy where the domestic worker might be fired when she becomes pregnant.”

“A lot of domestic workers are single moms,” said Ben Fuller-Googins, director of programs for the Carroll Gardens Association, a neighborhood activist group. ” The association educates domestic workers about their rights under the new law.

Almost all workers in homes in the city are women, according to groups looking out for their interests.

The median annual income for domestic employees in the city is $21,320, compared to $51,250 for all workers, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Most people employed in homes also receive public assistance.

The Commission on Human Rights estimates there are between 300,000 and 500,000 domestic workers are employed in the city. However, that number is hard to establish because undocumented workers do not self-identify and may work off the books.

Three-quarters of domestic workers are immigrants from countries in the Caribbean, East Asia and Central and South America.

“Domestic workers have historically been laboring in the shadow economy,” said Elmer Cato, the consul general and top diplomat representing the Philippines in New York State. While most Filipino workers are professionals, a significant proportion work in homes. In the past week, two domestic employees came to the consulate to lodge complaints about their employers, Cato said. The most frequently reported offenses involve wage theft, being overworked or employers failing to honor days off stipulated in contracts.

Consul General Elmer Cato of the Philippine Consulate considers the elements of the domestic workers’ human rights law

Since many domestic workers are undocumented, they often don’t report abuses out of fear of revealing their status and facing deportation. Domestic workers “are particularly vulnerable to all sorts of abuse and harassment because they feel like they have no right to complain since they have overstayed their visas,” Cato said. Employees can report abuses to the Philippine consulate regardless of immigration status and without fear of being reported to immigration authorities, he said.

Frank, from the New York City Commission on Human Rights, said the city welcomes all complaints about discrimination or sexual harassment from domestic employees, including from undocumented workers. Under the new law, their immigration status can’t be revealed.

Workers who experience abuse, whether discriminatory statements, sexual harassment or physical abuse, can report the offenses directly to the commission or to the city’s 311 call center. They can file a formal complaint or give an anonymous tip. Once a complaint is received, the city works to resolve the matter through a pre-complaint intervention, mediation or the Office of Administrative Trial and Hearings. 

The passage of the law “was awesome and really important for a lot of reasons,” Fuller-Googins said.  Now,  “without a concerted actual implementation, there won’t be material changes. The workers won’t know about it or enforce it themselves.”

While the need to help domestic workers has been established, the next phase is to ensure it is adequately implemented by educating both employers and employees. 

The Carroll Gardens Association is focusing on educating workers and offering “know-your-rights” workshops. Their goal is to train workers to become experts in their rights and how to talk to other workers. The workshops will be led by people trained in facilitation who have talent making the complex language of the law more understandable. 

The Commission on Human Rights is working to educate employees and employers. At the end of March, the commission will start distributing flyers daily in every borough to spread awareness about Intro 339-B.

Hand in Hand,  the network of employers, will be educating employers on contracts so they may establish early communication, boundaries and expectations. Contracts establish the scope of work and fair wages. Often, a person tasked with childcare may also be asked to do laundry or dishes, which is outside the original work scope. A contract helps create extra pay should a worker’s responsibilities expand. Hand in Hand recommends a minimum wage of $15 an hour, though it encourages $20 an hour.

“Ultimately, employers benefit when their home is a fair workplace,” Frankel said. “They want to know what they’re doing is right, just and fair.” Contracts will help with employee retention, improve quality of care and keep employers safe and healthy. 

“Codifying protections for domestic workers will significantly empower them and hopefully pave the way for more legal measures to improve the quality of their lives,” Cato said. “This will also encourage domestic workers to step out of the shadows in order to receive protection of the state.”

Carroll Gardens Association offers certificates for “Nanny Training of Trainers,” one of the many programs it holds to educate domestic workers. The association plans to hold future workshops on human rights for domestic workers.