Housekeepers, nannies and caregivers in California could benefit from new workplace protections

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Anabel Garcia from Santa Rosa has been cleaning homes for 19 years. She was asked to use harsh chemicals that impacted her vision and breathing. She was hired by insurance companies after the California wildfires to clean up ash-covered homes, while smoke billowed heavily in the air. Without protective gear, she had difficulty breathing and developed allergies. She cleaned houses where she was not allowed to use the bathroom. Now she is cleaning homes during a pandemic, unsure if any of her clients could be a carrier of the coronavirus.

As she supports two children, a stepfather and a husband diagnosed with cancer, Garcia feels obligated to accept the conditions imposed by her employers.

California labor law does not protect her or other domestic workers. Housekeepers, nannies, caregivers and others who work inside private homes are not covered by state requirements to provide safe working environments.

They could get new workplace protections from the state with SB1257, the All Workers’ Health and Safety Act, which the legislature passed last month. He is awaiting a signature from Governor Gavin Newsom, who has yet to announce his position, according to his office.

The law would place domestic workers under the responsibility of Cal / OSHA, the state’s division for occupational safety and health, effective January 1, 2022. Before that, a worker and employer advisory committee would have to be convened. to develop regulations. It would allow state inspections of workplaces and state inquiries in response to complaints.

“Our members aren’t asking for anything special – just the same protections the majority of California workers have under OSHA,” said Kimberly Alvarenga, director of the California Domestic Workers Coalition. “The heart and soul of the bill is preventing hazards in the workplace and giving dignity. “

While there was no formal opposition to the bill, which was passed with bipartisan support, some Californians said they felt private homes shouldn’t be subject to the same types of workplace inspections as offices and factories.

Over 300,000 Californians work in 2 million private homes to clean, cook, maintain gardens, and care for children, the elderly, and the sick and disabled. The workers in the interior are largely low-income women, many of them immigrants, many undocumented. They are often the main breadwinners.

Domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. They work in solitude, behind closed doors. Cleaners and gardeners work with chemicals that can be dangerous. They are susceptible to repetitive stress trauma. Caregivers are at risk for back pain and other problems having to lift people.

“Working under circumstances where you are excluded from the law, you really suffer a lot,” said State Senator María Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, the author of the bill. Her personal experience sheds light on her knowledge: she grew up in a family of migrant farm workers, working in the fields alongside her parents and siblings, with little protection from pesticides.

Cristina Ragas is seen at the office of the Filipino Adovocates for Justice in Union City, Calif. On Saturday, September 19, 2020. Ragas, who works as a nanny, housekeeper, and caregiver, hopes Governor Newsom signs a bill. provide Cal-OSHA protection to domestic workers.Paul Chinn / The Chronicle

After the wildfires, learning that domestic workers were asked to clean up without any protection from toxic ash “made me realize they had very serious health and safety issues,” she said. “It made me think: we have to do something.”

Farm workers and domestic workers have historically been excluded from workplace protections due to racism.

“Going back to the days of slavery, the laws automatically excluded these two sectors because they were originally African-American,” Durazo said.

In the 1930s, representatives of the South fiercely resisted the inclusion of the largely black workforce of domestic workers and agricultural workers in the New Deal labor protections.

With the coronavirus pandemic and rampant forest fires, domestic workers’ problems are magnified. They work nearby, so they could be infected by sick customers. Lots of lost customers who just stopped calling so they’re more desperate for work than ever before. Forest fires increase dangerous conditions, such as smoky air and ash. The pandemic has increased the use of bleach and other strong chemicals for disinfection.

“Hazards are extremely common for domestic workers, many of which would be preventable if better protections were in place,” said Isaac Jabola-Carolus, a doctoral student at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, who is studying the issue. “Employers rarely provide training in safety or (personal protective equipment), which is required in other industries. “

He interviewed 700 domestic workers in metro San Francisco and Los Angeles for a recently released report titled “Unprotected on the Job: How Exclusion from Safety and Health Laws Harms California Domestic Workers.”

More than three-quarters said they had suffered at least one injury, illness or other injury at work in the past 12 months. About two-thirds fear reprisals if they refuse to do a job they think is dangerous. A quarter said they contracted a contagious disease at work. A quarter suffered verbal or physical assault.

Cristina Ragas from Newark, who has worked as a nanny, housekeeper and private caregiver, said she has often been abused by her clients but is unsure of what to do. She needed the income to return home to the Philippines to support her mother and daughter.

“I have had terrible experiences,” she said, including an employer who hit her, people who withheld wages and many who did not observe any health or safety protection , she said in Tagalog through an interpreter.

Because an underlying health issue makes her very vulnerable to COVID-19, she has cut back on her job now. But if the new law is enacted, “I would feel more comfortable working again because there would be a certain sense of security and more standards in place,” Ragas said.

Garcia, the cleaner in Santa Rosa, had similar thoughts.

“Especially at this time of crisis with COVID and the forest fires, we hope to receive this protection,” she said, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. “We hope to be able to have a dignified and happy job”.

Carolyn Said is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @csaid



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