Roughly 35 people gathered at City Hall Thursday evening to hear testimony outlining the need for laws guaranteeing domestic workers’ fundamental labor rights.
The Human Services Committee of the New Haven Board of Alders offered its support for a state bill that seeks to guarantee domestic workers the same rights as other workers. The committee eventually voted to recommend that the Board of Alders pass a resolution to endorse the Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights, a bill that would provide domestic workers with employee rights from which they are currently excluded. The Labor and Public Employees Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly is currently reviewing the bill.
The hearing comes several days after a group of five domestic workers filed a lawsuit against Auntie Bella, a Connecticut-based housecleaning company. Among those presenting at the committee meeting were former employees of the company, other domestic workers, alders and legal experts.
“Today, I cried to have to be here in the 21st century asking for basic rights,” domestic worker Maria Lima Rodriguez said during her testimony. An immigrant from Brazil, Rodriguez said she has consistently been paid less than $7 per hour while working as a housecleaner in Fairfield County.
Domestic worker Elvira Vargas, a former Auntie Bella employee, urged the committee to support the resolution during the hearing, telling the members that she had consistently been paid less than minimum wage since she had started working for the company nine years ago. Vargas said that instead of paying an hourly wage, Auntie Bella paid her $20 per house cleaned, which amounted to around $360 for 60 hours of work per week.
Joanna Vincent LAW ’15, a student who works at Yale’s Legislative Advocacy Clinic, which represents the Brazilian Immigrant Center branch in Bridgeport, told the News that the purpose of the Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights is to correct a “complex array of exclusions that pervade Connecticut’s labor laws.”
According to Vincent, domestic workers are denied a number of protections available to almost all other employees in Connecticut, including workplace discrimination laws, sexual harassment laws and worker compensation laws.
James Bhandary-Alexander, a local attorney who represents low-wage workers, said the exclusions date back to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, adding that the federal laws were eventually passed down to the state level.
“It’s a legacy of the past that the legislature won’t believe exists,” Bhandary-Alexander said.
Vincent said she believes that a supportive resolution passed by the New Haven Board of Alders would be seriously considered by state legislators.
The Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights was proposed by the Connecticut Domestic Worker’s Taskforce, which was founded last June. The Task Force is a bipartisan effort including members of the state legislature, the Connecticut Department of Labor, domestic workers, domestic worker employers and domestic worker advocates.
The bill is supported by many organizations and companies, including the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Junta for Progressive Action and New Haven Legal Assistance.
Natalicia Tracy, executive director of the Brazilian Immigrant Center and a member of the Taskforce on Domestic Workers, said the task force demands that workers are paid the full amount promised by their employers, that workers are compensated for overtime work and that workers who live in their employer’s homes have a right to privacy.
Tracy added that employers should be required to notify workers in advance if they no longer need their services and that they should outline their expectations of their employees in the form of a written contract.
“If you live in a home and you are fired without cause, you become homeless,” Tracy said.
Nicole Hallett LAW ’08, a teaching fellow at Yale Law School, noted that many employers end up accidentally violating labor rights simply because the current domestic labor laws are so difficult to understand.
Hallett added that a bill of rights for domestic workers could clarify these misunderstandings and address the issue that the isolated nature of domestic work makes such employees more vulnerable to exploitation.
“When you take care of someone’s mother, when you clean someone’s home, you by necessity have to develop a personal relationship with that person,” Hallett said. “I think this personal relationship makes domestic workers uniquely vulnerable to abuse.”
In Connecticut, there are approximately 42,000 domestic workers who serve as housekeepers, nannies and caregivers in private homes, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance.