Arthritis from scrubbing, asthma from chemicals. California housekeepers want in on OSHA protections

Roxana Sanchez has slipped and fallen on freshly mopped floors on the job. She’s gone home with bruises. She’s scrubbed away feces and blood.

She has two bulging disks in her back, arthritis in her wrist and chronic neck pain, problems she attributes to working long days cleaning houses for more than a decade.

Domestic workers like Sanchez, a 43-year-old immigrant from Mexico who lives in Los Angeles, are excluded from Occupational Safety and Health Administration protections that other employees across the country benefit from.

The California Legislature voted on Thursday to make the state the first in the nation to include housekeepers, nannies and other household staff in laws requiring health and safety protections.

The fate of the bill now rests in the hands of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has vetoed a similar proposal before, saying that while domestic workers “deserve protections to ensure that their workplaces are safe and healthy,” private households cannot be regulated by the state in the same way as businesses.

The pressure to sign the bill is on more than ever before for the Democratic governor, who paid $288,000 in wages to household staff in 2019, according to his publicly-released tax records.

Workers across the state are on strike demanding better pay and benefits, and influential unions are holding up the law’s exclusion of a workforce dominated by women of color as an emblem of California’s yawning economic inequality.

“We want to be recognized like everyone else. We need health and safety, too,” Sanchez said while marching alongside hundreds of workers waving brooms and dusters outside the Capitol in Sacramento in late August. “Our families needs us to stay safe.”

The bill, SB 686, would remove a 50-year-old exclusion of domestic workers from California Division of Occupational Safety and Health rules, requiring anyone who hires household staff to comply with employer laws regarding injury prevention beginning in 2025.

A report by the UCLA Labor and Occupational Safety and Health Program in 2020 found that 85% of domestic workers surveyed experienced musculoskeletal injuries, and that many injuries common in the workforce could be avoided with regulatory protections such as use of proper equipment like long-handled tools to limit bending and reaching.

“For too long, the workers — the women — that we entrust to care for our loved ones and our homes have been marginalized and dehumanized by intentional exclusion from our workplace health and safety laws,” State Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), author of SB 686, said on the Senate floor Thursday night.

In his 2020 veto, Newsom cited significant liability and privacy concerns for 11 million homeowners and renters who would be subject to a slew of new employer rules regardless of their workplace safety expertise.

The governor called that proposal “unworkable” but committed to continue conversations with domestic worker representatives, and in 2021, signed legislation that required Cal/OSHA to convene an advisory committee to develop recommendations for home settings.

“New laws in this area must recognize that the places where people live cannot be treated in the exact same manner as a traditional workplace or worksite from a regulatory perspective,” Newsom said in his 2020 veto message.

The 2021 legislation resulted in voluntary industry guidelines to prevent “slips and trips”; injuries from lifting heavy items and allergic reactions and occupational asthma from chemicals in cleaning products.

Recommendations include using cleaning products with less harsh chemicals, providing domestic workers with personal protective equipment and supplying fans to increase air circulation.

The committee, which included employers, workers, advocates and health and safety experts, recommended an end to the Cal/OSHA exclusion.

“Once a person hires someone to come to their home to carry out a job, the house becomes a workplace and the employer has a responsibility to ensure it is a safe place to work,” the report stated.

Now, after years of negotiations, Durazo is demanding Newsom turn those workplace recommendations into a requirement by law.

Durazo said that Newsom’s concerns have been resolved, pointing to change that would allow the state to use “a more informal approach” by contacting home employers by phone and mail as a “first warning” to avoid privacy concerns about intrusive enforcement.

“Governor Newsom has a choice,” Durazo said at a news conference last month. “He told us what the issues were for him, we came back and we introduced another bill. Now is the time to stand up on the right side of history. Enough is enough.”

A spokesperson for Newsom’s office declined to answer questions about where the governor stands on the current bill, and pointed to $35 million in the state budget for domestic worker “education and outreach.”

The bill has a long list of supporters including SEIU California, the California Immigrant Policy Center and the Legislative Women’s Caucus and, no official opposition. If passed, the policy is expected to cost the state about $42 million annually.

Newsom’s Department of Finance opposes the bill, noting “significant state costs” and echoing the governor’s concerns about home enforcement, even with the narrower proposal crafted by the advisory committee.

California is facing a $31.5 billion budget deficit, and Newsom has already warned of impending vetoes due to cost concerns.

Domestic workers have been excluded from federal workplace protections since the 1970s. Supporters of SB 686 say that exclusion is reflective of racist and sexist policies dating back to slavery that devalue household work.

Nearly 90% housekeepers in California are Latina, and 84% were born outside of the U.S., according to the UCLA Labor Center. The median wage for domestic workers in California is $10.79 an hour, as many are classified as independent contractors and do not qualify for the state’s minimum wage of $15.50, according to the center.

“We — women of color — have too often been put in harm’s way, treated as disposable. The harm to our bodies, the pain from injuries, the trauma of assault, is treated as trivial,” said Tia Orr, executive director of SEIU California. “Our work has been invisible. Our struggle has been invisible to some, to those who blindly inhabit a bubble of privilege.”

Ai-jen Poo, president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, pointed to instances of California housekeepers reporting to work during dangerous wildfires and amid the worst of the pandemic while other workers did not. Housekeepers also face high rates of sexual harassment.

“Governor Newsom’s legacy depends on bills like this, the ones that challenge California’s path,” Poo said. “Will the state lead towards equitable equitable work conditions, especially for marginalized women of color, or uphold harmful disparities?”

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