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The Daily Need

Paterson signs first-ever domestic workers rights bill

Gov. David Paterson and Diane Savino, a state senator from Staten Island, celebrate the signing of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York on Tuesday.

Updated | 5:37 p.m. New York Gov. David Paterson signed the nation’s first-ever law protecting the rights of domestic workers on Tuesday, offering guaranteed overtime and safeguards against discrimination and sexual harassment to a largely invisible workforce of over half a million.

“Today we correct an historic injustice by granting those who care for the elderly, raise our children and clean our homes the same essential rights to which all workers should be entitled,” Paterson said.

The bill, which has inspired a similar measure in California, extends the most far-reaching workplace protections in the nation to New York’s nannies and in-home workers. Those protections include a guarantee of overtime pay, three days of rest a year and the extension of disability benefits to domestic workers.

However, the bill does not include other basic employment benefits, such as paid sick and vacation days, and does not require employers to offer notice of termination or severance pay to their workers. Instead, the state Department of Labor will study whether domestic workers should have the right to form unions and collectively bargain for additional protections.

In an interview after the bill signing, Priscilla Gonzalez, executive director of Domestic Workers United, an advocacy group, said her organization would continue to fight for additional workplace benefits and protections, such as severance pay and personal days. Those benefits are usually secured through collective bargaining agreements, or offered as a matter of course by employers. But the traditional collective bargaining process that labor unions use might not be appropriate for domestic workers, Gonzalez said.

“Since there are no standards, workers are pretty much left on their own to secure an agreement with their employers. And they’re at a disadvantage, because they’re typically alone, bargaining typically with two people,” Gonzalez said. “Ultimately, we are interested in a process that’s going to put domestic workers on par with most other workers, in terms of obtaining basic benefits and protections that will give them the quality of life that they deserve.”

Need to Know examined the debate over domestic workers and efforts to provide universal childcare last week. We followed the story of Patricia, a nanny who commuted more than an hour and 15 minutes each way from her apartment in East New York to the Upper East Side, where she earned a paltry wage of about $9 an hour caring for someone else’s child. Patricia was later fired when her longtime employer learned that she was pregnant.

Gonzalez said that such examples of abuse and employer misconduct are common in the industry, according to a study her group conducted in 2006. Most domestic workers, for example, say they work long hours with little or no overtime pay. The vast majority of domestic workers are also immigrants, and many have reported facing racial discrimination or sexual harassment. “The industry is sort of like the Wild Wild West,” Gonzalez said.

Some observers have warned that the legislation could make it more difficult for working mothers of modest economic means to hire domestic workers to care for their children. Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington told Need to Know last week that a more comprehensive solution, perhaps at the federal level, was necessary.

“It’s a classic trade-off,” Coontz said. “With the way childcare is structured in this country, it means many middle-class families are going to have a hard time affording it.”

Nonetheless, the lawmakers who sponsored the bill praised Paterson for signing it into law, saying the legislation would serve as an example for similar efforts at the federal level and in states across the country.

“With the signing of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, we will dramatically improve the lives of those who care for our children, our seniors and our homes, those who make all other work possible,” said Diane Savino, a former union organizer and state senator from Brooklyn and Staten Island. “More importantly, it sends a clear message to the rest of the country that domestic workers are indeed employees, and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.”

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