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Supporters of California Domestic Worker Protections Slam Governor's Veto

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A group of people cheer and hold up purple signs in an outdoor setting.
Elizabeth Montiel cheers during a rally with the California Domestic Workers Coalition. Employers, domestic workers, and partners gather outside the Earl Warren Building to protest Gov. Gavin Newsom’s veto of SB 686 in San Francisco on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. SB 686 would have provided health and safety protections to domestic workers like Montiel, who makes a living cleaning houses. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Domestic service workers and employers rallied in San Francisco and Los Angeles Thursday lambasting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s rejection of legislation aimed at preventing injuries and illnesses on the job over concerns that it would be too intrusive for households.

Some in the crowd of more than 100 near San Francisco City Hall held signs that read “Newsom: You are on the wrong side of history” and “I deserve a safe workplace.” Chants in Spanish of “Get out Newsom!” rose up periodically. A simultaneous demonstration in Los Angeles drew about 125 people, organizers said.

Protesters said they felt frustrated that the governor vetoed — for the second time — a measure to extend state occupational health and safety protections to an estimated 300,000 nannies, home-care aides and cleaners.

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“We need a safe workplace just like other workers,” said Elizabeth Montiel, 60, adding that she endured a severe muscle injury from lifting heavy furniture and moving a washing machine while cleaning homes in San Francisco. “I am a domestic worker and I deserve respect. We deserve our dignity to be recognized.”

California’s labor law explicitly exempts household domestic service from its definition of “employment,” which historians attribute to a legacy of slavery and sexist policies impacting a workforce made up heavily of women of color.

Because of the legal exclusion, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) does not have jurisdiction to issue citations on complaints involving this kind of labor, according to the agency.

Montiel and other workers said they’ve pushed for years for equal protections, including by traveling to Sacramento several times to rally and lobby lawmakers.

SB 686, introduced by state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), would have required many household employers to take steps to provide a safer workplace, as is the case in other industries, by Jan. 1, 2025. Publicly funded domestic services and family daycare homes would have remained exempt from job safety regulations.

A group of people cheer and hold up signs including one that reads "Living Wage Coalition" in an outdoor setting.
The California Domestic Workers Coalition, domestic workers and employers gather outside the Earl Warren Building to protest Gov. Newsom’s veto of SB 686 in San Francisco on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Newsom countered that rules meant for businesses would prove too onerous and potentially expensive for private households, particularly lower-income ones, which he said comprise 44% of the homes that employ domestic services.

In his Sept. 30 veto message (PDF), Newsom said SB 686 would make homeowners and renters subject to a “full set” of requirements, such as maintaining an Injury and Illness Prevention Program and providing an eyewash station to workers who use bleach and other chemicals.

“While I commend the author for the commitment to the well-being of workers in our state and share the spirit behind the legislation, new laws in this area must recognize that private households and families cannot be regulated in the exact same manner as traditional businesses,” Newsom said.

The governor also lamented that the measure did not identify which specific rules employers would be required to follow, or a particular system for enforcement.

But supporters pointed out that the bill allowed at least one year for Cal/OSHA to work out industry-specific standards compatible with groundbreaking voluntary guidelines for employers issued by the state last year.

Allowing domestic workers to be covered by safety protections was “a necessary first step to beginning this process,” said employers at the Hand in Hand network, which condemned the governor’s veto.

Oakland resident Jessica Lehman, who uses a wheelchair and employs home attendants to help her get out of bed and prepare meals, said Newsom’s statement was upsetting and “disingenuous.”

The 46-year-old believes that making the home workplace safer would also be a gain for people who live there, and help decrease labor shortages in the home-care industry by offering better jobs.

A group of people cheer and hold up purple signs in an outdoor setting.
The California Domestic Workers Coalition, domestic workers and employers gather outside the Earl Warren Building to protest Gov. Newsom’s veto of SB 686 in San Francisco. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

“I’m part of that community of people who aren’t rich who employ domestic workers, who know that this is going to benefit all of us. … that this is not going to keep us from getting the care and support we need,” said Lehman, a former executive director at Senior and Disability Action in San Francisco.

Newsom used “employers as an excuse to veto the bill, rather than actually asking our communities what we want and what we need,” she added.

Sen. Durazo authored two other bills aimed at ending the exclusion of people who labor in homes from state safety protections. In 2020, Newsom vetoed SB 1257 over similar concerns that regulations would be intrusive and unworkable for employers at residential dwellings.

The following year, worker advocates tried again with SB 321, but after negotiations with Newsom’s office, the measure that went into effect led instead to the voluntary industry guidance (PDF).

“I’m deeply disappointed that the Governor does not recognize the inherent worth and dignity of the women who care for our homes and families by vetoing SB 686,” Durazo told KQED in a statement after the most recent veto.

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The home setting may be different from other worksites, but domestic employees perform similar tasks to those of nursing homes, hotel housekeeping or janitorial jobs, said Kevin Riley, who is the director of UCLA’s Labor Occupational Safety & Health Program.

He authored an analysis (PDF) of more than 3,500 California worker compensation claims by housekeepers, nannies and caregivers, which found that the top causes for their injuries included falls, heavy lifting and other repetitive motions.

“For people doing those tasks in homes, the same risks apply, and therefore, we should be thinking about similar kinds of measures to provide protections to these folks,” Riley said.

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