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'A Legacy of Slavery': For Domestic Workers, California's New Safety Guidelines Are Long Overdue, Say Advocates

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a Latina woman in a pink shirt and rubber gloves cleans a kitchen counter with a sponge
Socorro Diaz scrubs kitchen counters during a house-cleaning job in Occidental, on Jan. 23, 2023. Diaz dealt with breathing issues after she was asked to clean a house filled with ash following the Tubbs wildfire. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In 2017, about a week after the massive Tubbs wildfire destroyed parts of Santa Rosa, house cleaner Socorro Diaz got a call from one of her clients. They asked her to work at their home, which was still standing next to incinerated buildings in the Fountaingrove neighborhood.

When Diaz arrived, she found the house full of ash. She said she didn’t have a proper mask or gloves to clean what she would soon realize was toxic residue. And after days of handling and breathing it in, her skin itched, her head hurt and her nose bled.

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“The sensation of the air, of breathing, hurt inside my nose,” said Diaz, 42, a mother of three children. “The smell was toxic, harmful, and I didn’t really have the right equipment.”

Under state labor law, employers of domestic service workers are not required to provide equipment or other conditions for a safe workplace, as is the case in other industries. That’s because household domestic service is not legally considered a form of “employment” — a remnant of slavery and sexist policies, according to historians. But stories like Diaz’s propelled a multiyear effort to gain full protections for this workforce, estimated at more than 358,000 people (PDF), most of whom are immigrant women of color.

Now, California has issued new voluntary industry guidelines for people who employ domestic workers, to prevent injuries and illness. Worker advocates say it’s a critical step to eventually end the exclusion of cleaners, nannies, home care aides and day laborers — who work in over 2 million California households (PDF) — from bedrock workplace regulations.

The safety guidance (PDF), published on Jan. 20, is the first in the nation to specifically cover the home as a workplace, say occupational health and safety experts.

“We are recognizing paid household labor as work worthy of protections, which is very historic,” said Eileen Boris, an author of several history books on home caregivers and other domestic workers.

a portrait of a Latina woman in a pink shirt and vest with her hair pulled back, sitting with serious look on her face at an outdoor table
Socorro Diaz sits outside a house-cleaning job in Occidental. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Boris and house cleaner Diaz both were part of a statewide advisory committee made up of employers, workers, advocates and occupational safety experts who worked alongside state regulators to produce the official guidelines. The committee’s task was mandated by a recent law, SB 321.

Domestic service employees often report job-related sickness or injury from exposure to toxic cleaning chemicals, contagious illnesses like COVID-19 and ergonomic hazards. Because of back injuries, home attendants have injury rates comparable to those of construction workers, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The new guidelines outline best practices for employers — including not to expect domestic workers to clean ash from wildfires, fix roofs, trim tall trees, clear out pest infestations or do any work that requires specialized equipment or training.

Employers also are urged to prevent injuries and illness by labeling toxic substances in a language the worker understands; creating an emergency preparedness plan for earthquakes or wildfires; offering puncture-resistant gloves to caregivers who handle needles; and removing electrical cords, wrinkled carpets and other tripping hazards.

“These are not anti-employer guidelines,” said Boris, who has hired a house cleaner for many years. “These guidelines are to make a safe home space for all who live or work within.”

a large group of people is seen protesting, with a woman in the foreground holding an orange sign that reads 'Domestic workers are essential'
Domestic workers march to amplify their demands for health and safety protections in the workplace via Senate Bill 321 in Los Angeles on May 26, 2021. (Brooke Anderson/California Domestic Worker Coalition)

Currently, any complaints by domestic workers that reach state job safety and health regulators will likely not be pursued, said a spokesperson with the Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees those regulators.

That’s because the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, has jurisdiction over most workers — but not those engaged in domestic work. The exclusion is baked into the definition of “employment” in the state’s Labor Code 6303, which defines it as any trade, enterprise or occupation in which a person works for hire, “except household domestic service.”

“If the work is household domestic service, Cal/OSHA lacks the jurisdiction to issue citations,” said the DIR spokesperson, who declined to be named. “If the work is outside the household domestic service exception — for example, major construction work that includes adding a new bedroom — the Division would have jurisdiction to investigate and issue citations.”

Federal OSHA does cover some domestic service employees: those who are hired by a company, but not those hired privately by an individual to work at their residence. In California, covered employees could report problems to that agency, but only if they work in areas of federal jurisdiction, such as U.S. military installations or national parks.

“Employees hired by a company which is employing them in areas of federal jurisdiction in California can complain to federal OSHA about accidents or hazards and we will evaluate the info and take appropriate action, which could include an investigation,” said Mike Petersen, a spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Labor.

The various exemptions of domestic workers from basic health and safety protections at the federal level and in most states is a legacy of slavery, when African American people were made to do unpaid domestic labor, and of sexism, which devalues work traditionally done by women, said Boris, a UC Santa Barbara professor of feminist studies.

a person is seen from the waist down wearing blue rubber gloves picking up cleaning supplies from a red bucket
Socorro Diaz grabs cleaning solution during a house-cleaning job in Occidental. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Domestic workers were excluded from the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, a U.S. law that granted workers the nation’s first minimum wage and overtime pay. That omission continued into the early 1970s, when federal OSHA and its counterpart Cal/OSHA were created. It wasn’t until 1976 that the state began granting minimum wage and other labor protections to some categories of domestic employees.

Since then, California domestic workers have gained rights to overtime pay, paid sick leave and worker’s compensation benefits if they get injured on the job. But they continue to be excluded from state health and safety rules. Major obstacles to changing that have been concerns about privacy and anxiety over the weight of government regulation in the home, said Boris.

In 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill, SB 1257, that would have extended state occupational health and safety protections to domestic workers. In his veto message, Newsom cited concerns that the proposed legislation would add millions of homes to the jurisdiction of Cal/OSHA — a severely understaffed agency — and would be too onerous for employers.

“I strongly share the belief of the bill's author and proponents that, like all other California workers, domestic service employees deserve protections to ensure that their workplaces are safe and healthy,” Newsom said. “However, 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.”

Several Republican state senators who voted against that bill, including Sens. Brian Dahle, Scott Wilk and Shannon Grove, declined requests for comment about their concerns with the measure.

In 2021, workers and advocates tried again to get legislators to strike the exemption from state law. After negotiations with Newsom, the measure that was ultimately enacted created the new voluntary guidelines.

Advocates wanted a law with more teeth, but they say they hope the voluntary guidance will be a first step toward allowing domestic workers to enjoy protections equal to those of other employees.

For starters, the guidelines identify which labor standards apply to the home and how, said Kimberly Alvarenga, who directs the California Domestic Workers Coalition.

“California is leading the path to finally granting workers what they deserve, and putting the nails in outdated policies that should not exist in today's world,” said Alvarenga.

a woman in a blazer and sunglasses is seen clapping outside at a protest
California Sen. María Elena Durazo, seen here at a rally in support of striking fast-food cooks and cashiers in Los Angeles and Orange counties, authored SB 321 and SB 1257. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The SB 321 advisory committee that developed the safety guidelines also issued policy recommendations (PDF) for the state Legislature and workplace regulators. Those include removing the household domestic services exclusion from the California Labor Code and establishing financial assistance for lower-income employers to get equipment they need to improve safety for workers, such as mechanical lifts.

State Sen. María Elena Durazo of Los Angeles, whose roots are in the labor movement, authored SB 321 and SB 1257. She plans to introduce another bill next month that would fulfill those recommendations.

She’s confident that this bill will pass, now that the building blocks have been laid by the newly issued guidelines and policy recommendations.

“We have to adjust. We can’t be living in the past. And this is definitely a legacy of slavery,” said Durazo. “We’ve got to move forward.”

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