Ending the myths about the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights

Issue February 2015 By Lydia Edwards and Rebecca G. Pontikes

"Domestic workers' vulnerability to exploitation and abuse is deeply rooted in historical, social, and economic trends. Domestic work is largely women's work. It carries the long legacy of the devaluation of women's labor in the household. Domestic work in the US also carries the legacy of slavery with its divisions of labor along lines of both race and gender. The women who perform domestic work today are, in substantial measure, immigrant workers, many of whom are undocumented, and women of racial and ethnic minorities. These workers enter the labor force bearing multiple disadvantages."
- Home Economics, The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work, by Linda Burnham and Nik Theodore for the National Domestic Workers Alliance

In the 1970s, under the leadership of Melnea Cass, an African-American woman and civil rights leader, Massachusetts granted domestic workers the right to collectively bargain, eligibility for workers compensation, the right to be paid the state minimum wage and coverage by the state's overtime laws. In December 2010, the Massachusetts Coalition for Domestic Workers continued her work, starting the modern movement for domestic workers.

On July 2, 2014, Massachusetts took a lead in inclusivity and civil rights. General Laws c. 149, § 190 brought domestic workers "out of the shadows." Demonstrating the need for this new law and its popularity, it passed in one legislative session with a unanimous Senate and bipartisan veto majority in the House.

Despite the popularity and passage with virtually no opposition, disparaging misconceptions and myths about the new law abound. The authors of this article aim to correct the myths and explain why employee advocates and the management bar should appreciate this new law.

The bill ends 'at-will' employment

This reaction is unfounded when considered in the proper context. It is aimed at two sections of the new law:

  • Section 190 (i) requiring employers of domestic workers have 14 days' notice before termination and those who live in the employer's home have 30 days' notice before losing their home and livelihood; and
  • Section 190 (j) requiring a written agreement spelling out the terms of employment, including (but not limited to): rate of pay, including overtime; additional compensation for added duties or multilingual skills; working hours, including meal breaks and other time off; and provisions for days of rest, earned sick days, vacation days, personal days, holidays, transportation, health insurance, severance and yearly raises; any fees or other costs, including costs for meals and lodging; the responsibilities associated with the job; the right to collect workers compensation if injured; and the required notice of employment termination by either party.

Employment at-will is entrenched in the United States. It allows employers to terminate the employment relationship for any reason and without notice. The employee has the same right to end the relationship. Because the employee is the individual with much less power, this "equality" calls to mind Anatole France's quote, "In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread." Discussion about the injustice to labor of this interpretation is for another day.

Our point is that, before proclaiming the end of employment at will, a little perspective is needed. Since the adoption of employment at will, the law has spawned a plethora of exceptions to the at-will rule, both through statute and the common law, including a public policy exception; exceptions banning discrimination based on race, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation and other protected classes; and exceptions banning retaliation against whistleblowers. Beyond these widely known exceptions, it is also illegal to fire someone for having made a claim under the workers' compensation statute (M.G.L. c. 152, § 75B), for refusing to perform an abortion (M.G.L. c. 112, §12I), for a public employee donating blood (M.G.L. c. 149, § 33D), for expressing breast milk ((29 U.S.C. § 207 (r)(1)), and, most recently added, for being a victim of domestic violence (M.G.L. c. 149, §52E). So, employment at-will "as we know it" already has many exceptions - one could argue so many that it swallows the rule.

In any event, many employees are subject to non-competition and non-solicitation agreements. These agreements generally alter the employee's side of the at-will relationship by prohibiting an employee from moving to a competitor for a period of time. These agreements place significant practical constraints on the employee's ability to leave for any reason or no reason.

Sections (i) and (j) are right in character with the other exceptions.

There is no just cause requirement to fire a domestic worker. The modification to employment at-will is the notice provision. The law requires that live-in workers only will be provided with 30 days notice when they are to be terminated without cause. This was intended to address both the power dynamic and the unintended consequence of "at-will" employment for live-in workers: instant homelessness. Furthermore, the law allows an employer to avoid the notice provision entirely if the employer pays two weeks' severance, or if necessary, provides a written good faith allegation of abuse, neglect or other harmful conduct.

The second modification, the written agreement requirement, only applies to workers who work more than 16 hours a week. The provision was a direct response to employer requests that had nothing to do with the care of the house or family, job creep (increase of duties without corresponding increase in pay). These provisions were to assure clarity and boundaries. The agreement encourages communication at the beginning of the relationship that will help both the family and the worker.

The bill forces use of an agency

Given the pre-enactment state of the law, so confusing and full of issues and so lacking in guidelines, it is unlikely that any family or employer understood what the worker and employer obligations were. Both workers and employers designed the bill. On June 16, 2012, the Massachusetts Coalition for Domestic Workers hosted a meeting of more than 100 workers and employers in five languages with one simple question: "What is respect and dignity for you?" That list was created together by workers employers.

The record-keeping requirements of the new law overlap with the requirements that are already required. The law's requirements for rest periods, written agreements, obligation to pay for meals and lodging, earned sick and vacation time, and privacy draw simple boundaries. To assist employers of domestic workers (who are not corporate agencies themselves), the law requires a sample agreement be posted on the attorney general's website along with a sample notice that employers are to give to workers. The agreements, if followed and completed will help employer to comply with the vast majority of the law. In addition, employers will also have access to a sample notice of rights (also required by the law M.G.L. c. 149, § 190 (m)) that they will provide to workers. While it is tempting to resist them because of a common view that a domestic worker is similar to a teenage babysitter or a relative who comes to help with care giving, if a family wants to employ someone for care giving, they have not adopted a family member. They have engaged an employee.

You can't monitor your nanny

Untrue. Section 190 (h) specifically addresses communication and bathroom monitoring. And does not go beyond the protections other workers already have. Massachusetts' citizens generally are protected from "unreasonable, substantial or serious interference" of their privacy. These rights are enforceable in the superior court and successful litigants are entitled to an award of damages. M.G.L. c. 214, § 1B. Other employers are subject to this law. (Bratt v. International Business Machines Corp., 392 Mass. 508, 508, (Mass. 1984).)

The new law specifically addresses issues particular to domestic workers to clarify boundaries for privacy purposes. Unlike a worker who goes to an office to work, the domestic worker generally goes to a private home. The privacy protections prevent cameras in a person's personal bathroom and bedroom (if that type of personal living space is provided to the worker). They also prevent listening to private calls. An employer could still tell a worker not to use his or her cell phone during work time except for emergencies.

The law also combats human trafficking. Domestic workers are the second largest group of victims to be trafficked into this country behind sex trafficking victims. Surveillance by an employer is one way to control trafficked victims - without the means to report their situation secretly, victims will remain unable to extricate themselves from their situation.

The bill will hurt immigrant workers

Likely false. The authors know of no study that has shown that immigrant workers are harmed by being given the rights they now have in Massachusetts. Thus far, in the four states that have enacted protections for domestic workers, there is no evidence of a lack of job growth. In any event, it's unlikely that the few, and small, boundaries on employers of domestic help will stench the ability of workers who want to find work and employers who want to hire them to employ them. Notably, this industry has is staying power. At some point, a domestic worker touches all of our lives. Many people couldn't function without assistance with house cleaning or nannies for their children. Indeed the projected growth nationwide for the children care market is expected to go up 14 percent per year from 2102 to 2022. (US Department of Labor http://www.bls.gov/ooh/personal-care-and-service/childcare-workers.htm.)

The new law will not affect the ability of a family to employ a casual babysitter. The term "domestic worker" is specifically defined to exclude an individual whose services primarily consist of childcare on an intermittent and irregular basis. (29 CFR 552.5.)

Expanding the commission's jurisdiction duplicates rights

False. Chapter 151B, the state employment anti-discrimination statute, only applies to employers with more than six employees. In most cases a domestic worker is the only employee, putting him or her outside the purview of Chapter 151B and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). Prior to the law's passage there was a clause that specifically excluded those "in the domestic service of another," meaning virtually all domestic workers had no access to the MCAD.

While Chapter 214, Section 1C does provide that all individuals of the commonwealth are to be free from sexual harassment, and the Massachusetts Equal Rights Act Chapter 93, §§ 102 and 103, prohibits discrimination protections due to race, national origin, age, disability and gender, the recourse for both is filing a complaint in the Superior Court. Most domestic workers lack the funds to retain an attorney, pay the filing fee, and bring suit against their employers. Giving the domestic worker access to the commission allows them to file a charge for free. It also gives them access to the commission's procedures that offer assistance to those without counsel, including the conciliation process and an investigative hearing before a finding is made. The informality of the commission is actually ideally suited to address the claims of a domestic worker against a family.

Conclusion

This new law is a long-awaited conferring of rights to some of the commonwealth's hardest working individuals. It provides them rights and recourses that many workers already enjoy. It also attempts to address the particular vulnerabilities of individuals whose job is to "care" in a private home. The law will only increase communication and negotiation between domestic workers and their employers, families or other entities, empowering both the families and the workers to answer the question "What is respect and dignity" for their relationship.