Five domestic workers from Connecticut are suing their employer in a federal wage theft lawsuit, claiming that they were denied the few legal rights that protect domestic workers.
The plaintiffs, who live in New Haven, West Haven, Derby and Ansonia, filed the lawsuit Tuesday with the aid of the New Haven Legal Assistance Association. They claim that their employer, Connecticut-based house-cleaning company Auntie Bella, did not render payment for all hours worked, refused to pay overtime premiums and failed to pay them minimum wage. The lawsuit comes at a time of increased attention to workers’ rights across the state, as the Domestic Workers Taskforce is currently drafting a bill of rights for domestic laborers in Connecticut.
“These workers worked very hard cleaning peoples houses,” James Bhandary-Alexander, the plaintiffs’ attorney from New Haven Legal Assistance said. “They need to be paid what they’re owed.”
According to the lawsuit filed, the plaintiffs are pursuing recovery of unpaid wages, liquidated damages, compensatory damages, punitive damages, costs and attorney’s fees under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Auntie Bella management could not be reached for comment.
The trial will rely on documentary evidence and testimony from both the plaintiffs and the owners of Auntie Bella. Plaintiffs Rosa Morales, Lujanny Jimenez, Elvira Gutierrez Vargas, Eloisa Guttierrez Vargas, Eloisa Nufio Guttierez and Maribel Mejia all worked for Auntie Bella at some point during the past nine years and were employed for anywhere between a few months and many years.
“Wage theft is a systemic problem in Connecticut,” said Megan Fountain ’07, an organizer for immigrant and labor rights group Unidad Latina en Acción. “Connecticut needs to have real enforcement of the wage laws and stronger tools to get the workers the wage that they’re owed.”
A study conducted by the National Employment Law Council in 2009 found that 26 percent of workers were paid less than minimum wage in the week before the study, and 76 percent of workers were not paid the legally required amount of money for overtime work.
In June 2014, the Connecticut Legislature established the Domestic Workers Taskforce to tackle this issue. The Bill of Rights currently being scripted is supported by many organizations and companies, including the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Junta for Progressive Action and New Haven Legal Assistance.
Natalicia Tracey — the executive director of the Brazilian Immigrant Center in Bridgeport — said she hopes the Connecticut Bill of Rights would mirror the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in Massachusetts. Tracey hopes the bill, in particular, will focus on protection against discrimination and sexual harassment, and also allow workers days off and breaks for lunch.
Tracey stressed that part of why it is so difficult for workers to exercise their rights is that the Connecticut Department of Labor has not yet effectively defined their industry.
Stacey Zimmerman, the associate director of the Service Employees International Service Connecticut State Council, said establishing a bill of rights for domestic workers would move them into modern labor law. Zimmerman compared the current state of affairs for domestic workers to indentured servitude.
Bhandary-Alexander said domestic workers are excluded from both federal and state level protections. On the federal level, the plaintiffs are not protected by the National Relations Act or Title VII; on the state level, anti-discrimination statutes, workers compensation coverage and paid sick day laws do not apply to them.
“As labor laws that protected labor workers passed … there was an exclusion from these workplace laws for domestic workers,” Bhandary-Alexander said.
There are approximately 40,000 domestic workers in Connecticut.