Image via Philadelphia Domestic Workers Alliance
Image via Philadelphia Domestic Workers Alliance

“Other people’s homes are their workplaces and we need to lay out what the responsibilities are of the workers and of the employers so that work can be respected.”

A new bill approved unanimously by the Philadelphia City Council last week ensures some of its most vulnerable workers will now have rights other employees have come to expect.

Introduced by Democratic Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez in June, the Philadelphia Domestic Workers Bill of Rights provides the city’s 16,000 domestic workers, including caregivers and housekeepers, with paid time off, written contracts outlining duties and pay, meal and rest breaks, and more. 

As one nanny who testified on Oct. 31 before City Council noted: “This Bill will allow some of our most vulnerable members to be treated like the decent human beings we have proven ourselves to be.”

Advocates have called Philadelphia’s legislation “the most innovative” bill passed in the country thus far. That’s because the bill creates a “portable benefits system” that allows workers to accrue paid time off regardless of how many employers they work for. 

The bill also stipulates, among other things, that:

  • live-in workers may not be required to work more than six days in a row
  • employers cannot terminate a worker without giving them a minimum of two weeks’ notice (unless the worker “has engaged in significant misconduct”)
  • workers are entitled to privacy protections
  • employers cannot “take or threaten retaliatory action” if a worker alleges their rights have been violated
  • an “enforcement agency” be created to monitor the standards and report back to the Mayor’s Office of Labor 

The bill now heads to Mayor Jim Kenney’s office, who is expected to sign it. 

Nicole Kligerman is the director of Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance, a joint project of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Philadelphia Jobs with Justice. In an interview with COURIER, Kligerman said that aside from offering domestic workers some much needed protections, the newly passed bill also “demonstrates that domestic work is real work.”

“Every provision in the bill really serves to say … domestic workers are real workers,” the longtime community organizer said. “Other people’s homes are their workplaces and we need to lay out what the responsibilities are of the workers and of the employers so that work can be respected.”

Since labor regulations associated with the New Deal were passed in the 1930s, domestic workers, who are largely marginalized women of color, have been excluded from all local, state, and federal labor protections, Kligerman explained. In other words, domestic workers have historically not qualified for things like minimum wage and overtime pay, civil rights protections, discrimination protections, meal and rest breaks, and access to any benefits. 

“That’s because domestic workers and agricultural workers, as the descendants of enslaved people, were very systematically and explicitly left out of those laws,” Kligerman said. “We’re talking about centuries of extreme, racialized, gendered worker abuse. Our fight is really about upending the very violent, racist building blocks of this country.”

One of the workers who’s spent the last few months advocating for the passage of the Domestic Workers Bills of Rights is Mercedes Reyes. Reyes, a US citizen who was born in El Salvador, spent more than 13 years working as a live-in domestic worker where she handled childcare and housework. Her day began every day at 6 a.m. and didn’t end until 7 or 8 p.m.. 

“I felt very frustrated and depressed at that job,” Reyes told COURIER. (She spoke in Spanish, translated by Kligerman.) “I had to work way too much for very low pay.”

Reyes said she joined the fight for workers’ rights so “the next generation doesn’t experience what I went through. We don’t get paid vacation. If we take time off, we’re retaliated against. There is so much mistreatment and discrimination that workers face in ways that our experiences are not given value.”

According to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, nine states—New Mexico, New York, Hawaii, Connecticut, California, Illinois, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Oregon—and the city of Seattle have passed similar legislation as Philadelphia’s to protect domestic workers. 

“We’re in a moment where the [national] political climate is really cleaving,” Kligerman said. “It’s very clear that you’re either on the side of poor and working-class Black and immigrant women, or you’re against these folks.”