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Seattle City Council passes new labor standards for domestic workers

Under the new law, nannies, housecleaners, and gardeners will be guaranteed minimum wage and rest breaks

Advocates with Casa Latina celebrate the passage of the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.
Steven Hsieh

The Seattle City Council on Monday voted seven-to-zero to expand labor protections for nannies, household cleaners and other domestic workers.

The ordinance, sponsored by Seattle City Councilor Teresa Mosqueda, guarantees the right to minimum wage and rest breaks for a class of workers previously excluded from key labor regulations.

Mosqueda’s bill also creates a Domestic Workers Standards Board tasked with making additional policy recommendations. The board will include 13 appointed members, including employers, domestic workers and community representatives.

The new protections are scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2019.

Mayor Jenny Durkan is expected to sign the legislation, making Seattle the first major city in the United States to pass an ordinance lifting workplace standards for domestic workers. City officials said they looked to similar laws from eight states, including New York and California, as models for Seattle’s bill.

During Monday’s City Council meeting, Mosqueda stressed that council staff crafted the legislation based on the input of stakeholders, including domestic workers and the people who hire them.

“Domestic workers are more likely to be women, people of color, immigrants. They’ve been excluded from our national labor protections. They’ve been isolated due to the nature of their work environment,” Mosqueda said before the vote. City Councilors Lisa Herbold and Mike O’Brien were absent from the meeting, but sent supportive statements.

National and local advocates took note of the moment.

”The Seattle Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is an innovative and forward-thinking legislation,” said Mariana Viturro, Deputy Director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “It shows what’s possible when the workers who are most vulnerable and often invisible become the center of our solutions.”

“Nannies and house cleaners in Seattle are making history today,” said Rachel Lauter, executive director of Working Washington and Fair Work Center, in a statement.

The ordinance guarantees meal breaks for every five hours worked and rest breaks for every four hours. Domestic laborers who cannot to take breaks, like some childcare workers, will be granted additional compensation.

Workers who live in their employer’s residence will be guaranteed a day of rest per week. Finally, employers will be prohibited from taking the personal documents, such as passports or visas, of domestic workers.

Casual work, meaning work that is “irregular, uncertain, or incidental in nature and duration,” won’t be covered under the new ordinance. Nor will au pairs or workers who are hired by a family member.

The new protections present new challenges for the Office of Labor Standards (OLS), an already overburdened city office responsible for investigating workplace violations. Unlike traditional businesses, households who hire domestic workers might not be accustomed to thinking of themselves as employers. Without human resource departments or lawyers to help get them up to speed, the onus will fall on OLS to get the word out on the new law.

“At the initial stage, you’ll have a lot of employers not knowing their obligations and on the workers’ side not knowing what they’re entitled too,” OLS director Martin Garfinkel said. His department plans to post a model handout on its website.

Lawmakers say the new protections represent an initial step in bringing standards for domestic workers closer to parity with the rest of Seattle’s workforce, with more on the way. The bill instructs the new standards board to make policy recommendations related to training, job skills, paid sick leave, workers compensation, hiring agreements and other issues.

Once the board gets established, members will have six months to submit a two-year work plan. After the board submits its recommendations, the City Council will be required to act on them within 120 days.

One additional protection could come as soon as August. City Councilor Herbold plans to introduce legislation that will make it easier for domestic workers to report discrimination and sexual harassment to Seattle’s Office of Civil Rights.

A March report from labor groups found that most of Seattle’s roughly 30,000 domestic workers live below the federal poverty line without benefits like healthcare, paid family leave and overtime pay.

During the public comment session, workers raised other challenges they face. More than one domestic worker said she was the victim of wage theft. Maria Louisa, who has been cleaning homes for more than 15 years, said she would like to see the city consider policies that would help domestic workers with retirement.

“I ask myself what will happen if I can no longer work. How will I pay for my rent, my bills? I don’t want to end up on the streets asking for money on the corners. I also don’t want to be a drain on my family,” Louisa said in Spanish through a translator.

Seattle has emerged as a national leader on labor laws since becoming the first city to pass a $15 minimum wage in 2014. Lawmakers in recent years have also passed ordinances granting drivers for ride-hailing apps the right to unionize (although that’s still tied up in court) and requiring that employers give retail and food workers more predictable schedules.

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