Rauner signs law extending labor protections to domestic workers

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From the Chicago Tribune:

by Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz

Illinois nannies, housekeepers and other domestic workers will be entitled to the state minimum wage and basic human rights protections come Jan. 1 under a bill signed into law Friday by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

The Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights amends four state laws to include domestic workers, who are among several groups excluded from basic labor protections and, worker advocates say, vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

"This is really historic because the exclusion of domestic workers from federal and state employment laws has an unfortunate history in slavery and anti-immigrant sentiment," said Wendy Pollack, founder and director of the Women's Law and Policy Project at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, which is part of a coalition that has been pushing for domestic worker legislation for five years.

Some federal labor laws have been amended over the years to erase the exclusion of domestic workers, who are covered by federal minimum wage and overtime protections. The state law erases their exclusion from Illinois laws, which offer additional protections.

Domestic workers now will be covered by Illinois' Minimum Wage Law, which requires workers be paid at least $8.25 an hour (more than the federal minimum of $7.25), and the One Day Rest in Seven Act, which requires employees get at least 24 hours of rest in each calendar week and a meal period of 20 minutes for every 7.5-hour shift. They also will be covered by the Illinois Human Rights Act, which protects against sexual harassment, and the Wages of Women and Minors Act, which prohibits employers from paying women and minors "an oppressive and unreasonable wage."

The bill had the support of the Illinois chapter of the Home Care Association of America, a trade group representing companies that employ caregivers.

Illinois is the seventh state to adopt domestic worker protections, according to Arise Chicago, a workers center that was part of the coalition.

The bill covers workers regularly employed at least eight hours a week in domestic jobs, a classification that excludes occasional baby sitters. It covers live-in workers, people employed by agencies and workers with a one-on-one agreement with a household.

Pollack said there is more work to be done to educate employers and workers about improving conditions for the more than 35,000 people in Illinois who cook, clean, drive and care for the children of others. Many employers "sincerely care about the workers they employ, and often think of them as part of their family, but then don't make the leap to the fact that there exists an employer-employee relationship between them," Pollack said.

For example, one big issue for domestic workers is the "job creep" that happens when they get a call from their employer asking them to stay another hour or two, without clear rules about whether they're getting paid for that time, Pollack said. Written contracts that clarify the parameters of the job could help, she said.

Magdalena Zylinska, who has worked as a house cleaner for nearly 20 years and as a nanny before that, said the law is a "little step toward a better future." While she is happy now as an independent contractor, she said she used to work for agencies that would tell house cleaners they didn't do a good job and withhold their paychecks. She took care of families' kids for years only to be told she wasn't needed anymore with nearly no notice.

A lack of guidelines in a largely unregulated industry has made it difficult for workers to know their rights. She recalled spending half a day cleaning a home in Elmwood Park when the vacuum cleaner she was using broke. She apologized and had it fixed, but her employer took $60 out of her $80 paycheck for it. She didn't know at the time that that isn't permitted.

The importance of the new bill "wasn't really about the money but it was about respect," Zylinska said. "We make other work possible, and we really don't get recognized for that."

In-home workers are disproportionately black, Hispanic and immigrant, and more than 90 percent are women, according to a 2012 study by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. Nearly a quarter live below the poverty line and just 12 percent receive health insurance from their employer.

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