Nannies and housecleaners speak up about abuse

Chicago domestic workers say conclusions from new report supports their case for change.

November 28, 2012

(Flickr/Jobs With Justice)
A 2011 demonstration for California's Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. It was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. Some Chicago residents are advocating for a similar bill in Springfield.

A new national report suggests many household workers are subject to low wages and dangerous working conditions. The study, co-sponsored by the Center for Urban and Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, surveyed more than 2,000 nannies, caregivers and housecleaners in 14 metropolitan areas. Authors say it is the first national statistical report on home workers.

The study found that nearly a quarter of domestic workers are paid less than their state’s minimum wage, and 65 percent of those surveyed lack health insurance. Only 4 percent reported being provided with health insurance by their employers. The report also revealed a high likelihood of injury and exposure to chemicals on the job. And 36 percent of live-in workers and 19 percent of all workers said they’d been threatened, insulted, or verbally abused by an employer.

The vast majority of domestic workers are women.

“Some of them are working for $1.42 an hour and they’re working 24-hour days," said Lisa Thomas, who helped administer related surveys in Chicago. "I didn’t realize that this was going on.” 

Thomas, who has worked in home care for 21 years, said she had been verbally harassed on the job and worked without benefits for many years. But, she said, she was surprised and horrified to hear about female live-in workers who said they were often afraid to complain about conditions. Thomas said many thought they might lose their jobs or be deported.

“A majority of them were living in fear,” she said.

Thomas is working with the Chicago Coalition of Household Workers (CCHW) to advocate for a domestic workers bill of rights similar to one passed in New York in 2010. The coalition is based at the Latino Union of Chicago, an organization that advocates for the rights of day laborers.

“We participated in the survey to get a better sense of the problems going on and have it verified,” said Elisa Ringholm of the Latino Union. Over the last year members of the coalition traveled to California to work with organizers there on a bill of rights. California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed that bill in September.

“Domestic workers are not considered workers,” said Ringholm. Most domestic workers do not have a legal right to a minimum wage, overtime, or workers compensation. “Those are the kind of things that we want to change in Illinois.”

State Senator Ira Silverstein (D-8th) of Chicago says he plans to introduce the bill in January. In 2011 the Illinois Senate voted down a domestic workers rights bill sponsored by Silverstein; the new bill will include the input of the Chicago coalition.