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Martha Herrera worked for four years as a nanny in San Francisco, helping to care for a little girl who has physical and developmental disabilities.
The job included helping the girl get home from school, and carrying her and bathing her. One day while carrying the child, who had just started to walk at age 8, Herrera slipped and injured her back.
The conversation with the child’s parents was awkward and brief. They gave Herrera $300 as compensation for medical expenses and never reached out again, she said. The injury kept her out of work for three months.
“They just said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry; that’s too bad,’” Herrera said, 56, through a Spanish interpreter. “I felt not valued and disposable.”
In that employment arrangement there were few places for Herrera to turn. Domestic workers — those who are privately hired to provide services in a home — aren’t covered by the state’s or the nation’s occupational safety laws, which require most employers to meet standards to prevent injury and ensure a safe place to work.
That could change soon. A proposal in the state Senate sponsored by the California Domestic Workers Coalition would remove the exclusion, opening the door for the state’s Division of Occupational Health and Safety (CalOSHA) to issue workplace safety rules for any household employing a domestic worker.
More than 300,000 California workers, mostly immigrants and women of color, were employed in domestic work for about 2 million households, according to a 2020 UCLA Labor Center report. Typically they’re house cleaners, gardeners or nannies. Many take care of seniors or people with disabilities, a sector where demand is growing with an aging population.
They’re also the only workers left out of workplace safety protections — a decades-old exclusion with racist origins, advocates say.
Safety at home
The bill filed by state Sen. María Elena Durazo, a Los Angeles Democrat, comes on the heels of a January report by an advisory committee of workers — including Herrera — their advocates, employers of domestic workers and occupational safety experts. The state’s Department of Industrial Relations, which includes CalOSHA, convened the committee last year at the direction of the Legislature after Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed an earlier version of the workplace safety proposal.
The report contains more than a dozen policy recommendations and a set of guidelines for employers to maintain a safe worksite in their homes, covering everything from the usage of cleaning chemicals to safe lifting practices to avoid injury.
The guidelines are optional. The workers coalition hopes they could soon be adopted into formal state regulations if Durazo’s proposal passes.
In 2021 Virginia added domestic workers to its workplace safety laws. But no states have issued detailed guidelines for employers like California’s committee has, said Kimberly Alvarenga, director of the domestic workers coalition.
“The goal of this is really to prevent injuries and hazards from happening, as it would be with any other industry, and all the privileges that you and I have every day when we go to work,” Alvarenga said.
Domestic workers have been left out of labor protections since the New Deal in the 1930s, when Congress first established a federal minimum wage and a right to overtime pay.
In what historians call a concession to Southern lawmakers, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 excluded domestic servants and farmworkers — two types of work largely performed by Black laborers post-Reconstruction. The same exclusions were part of federal occupational health and safety laws decades later; California modeled its original labor laws after the federal counterparts.
CalOSHA does cover farmworkers. And California has extended protections on wages and working hours to both farmworkers and domestic workers. Domestic workers also gained the right to overtime pay and meal and rest breaks with a 2013 law that became permanent in 2016.
But in the state’s workplace safety law, under the definition of employees covered, four words remain: “except household domestic service.”
‘Life and death’
This became a bigger concern for advocates in recent years when reports emerged during California wildfires that domestic workers were required to work in evacuation zones and to clean houses before the smoke and ash had subsided.