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A Bill of Rights for Housecleaners

A Bill of Rights for Housecleaners

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From The New York Times:

by Isabel Escobar

Chicago — For eight years, I worked as a housecleaner for a millionaire who lived in the Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago. I took the bus across town three times a week, often to work in an empty house because my employer was frequently away, traveling for business.

That also meant I got paid only when I saw him — in lump sums, often months apart. At first, I didn’t mind this setup, but soon, months would pass. By the end of 2008, my employer owed me $10,000 — and had stopped returning my calls.

I was frantic. It wasn’t just that these were wages for weeks and weeks of work I’d already done, but I had bills to pay and my son’s tuition at a special high school.

I went over to my employer’s place one day, hoping to confront him, and finally found him home. I asked when I’d get paid what I was owed. He didn’t answer, but instead offered a one-off payment of $1,000 to settle the debt. When I refused that, he told me to leave and, obviously assuming I was undocumented, threatened to have me deported. (In fact, I had legal status as a permanent resident on grounds of political asylum.)

It wasn’t the first time I’d been treated like this. I’d been a housekeeper for more than a decade, after coming to Chicago from Guatemala in 1989 to escape the civil war. In general, the work wasn’t bad, though it was hard on my joints as I got older. I often felt I was learning new things, and I always took pride in maintaining clean and tidy homes for people.

But I soon found out how some employers tried to take advantage of an immigrant with the broken English I spoke at the time. One woman wanted to pay me $60 for two full days of work — after we’d previously agreed on a higher amount. Another employer liked to leave pornographic magazines lying around after I started working for him.

In any regular workplace, this type of behavior wouldn’t be tolerated. But for domestic workers like me, who do their jobs in the privacy of people’s homes, there isn’t much we can do. If we say something, we get fired.

Which is why the Gold Coast millionaire probably thought I would just go away. But he was wrong. I took him to court.

When I filed my wage theft lawsuit, I was shocked to learn how few rights I had under Illinois law. There are about two million domestic workers in the United States — people like me, who clean homes or care for children and seniors. Many of us are minority or immigrant women, and many work for less than minimum wage — either because domestic work is not covered by the federal labor laws or because domestic workers are also excluded from state protections and benefits.

Fighting my lawsuit gradually turned me into an activist, and I began to speak out about my case. The more I did, the more I met other domestic workers who told me their stories; many had suffered worse mistreatment than I had. Taking inspiration from efforts in other states like California and New York to pass laws that protect the rights of domestic workers, we began campaigning for similar legislation in Illinois.

It took awhile, but we won. In August, Illinois became the seventh state to adopt a law to protect our rights, joining Massachusetts, California, New York, Oregon, Hawaii and Connecticut.

Under the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, more than 35,000 housecleaners, nannies and home care workers in Illinois are fully covered by labor and human rights laws for the first time in the state’s history. Whether you’re paid in cash, or are undocumented, as a domestic worker you are now guaranteed a state minimum wage, protection from discrimination and sexual harassment, a meal break in every shift and a day of rest each week.

The day of my final court date, my employer met me outside the courtroom and tried to make a final settlement. He raised his offer to $1,500. I said no, out of dignity for myself and for my work. Fortunately, I was vindicated because, a few minutes later, the judge ruled in my favor. But it had taken five long, grinding years to get justice. No one should have to go through that.

Read more from The New York Times

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