Magdalena Mrowca approached her employer last year and asked for a written contract for her house cleaning services.
Mrowca was alerting her boss that a Chicago ordinance had gone into effect months before that requires employers to provide written contracts to domestic workers working in the city.
“They didn’t say anything, but in a few days they just let me go,” Mrowca remembered. She said the employer mentioned a college-age daughter who was home and would take over cleaning duties.
“It might have been coincidence, but … for many years [I’ve] been cleaning for the same place,” Mrowca, 53, said. “It’s weird to have the coincidence at the same time I ask for a contract.”
After that experience, Mrowca has not approached any other employers for a written contract. She hopes to work up the courage to ask the few remaining Chicago clients she has, because it’s “important to keep fighting for these contracts.” But the Elmwood Park resident has taken more jobs in the suburbs recently because they don’t have the contract requirement.
“It’s just not worth it to me. If I … lose the job, [I] will not have money to support [myself]. This is constant headache and stress — unnecessary,” said Mrowca, adding that none of her domestic worker friends have been given a contract by their employers.
As of January 2022, house cleaners, nannies and caregivers who work in Chicago are entitled to a written contract in their preferred language, outlining, at minimum, their wage and work schedule. If households use an agency, the agency is responsible for providing workers with the contract. Other provisions in a written contract might include who provides supplies, what happens when an employer cancels, and situations where a worker might be asked to do something outside their scope. The contracts are meant to protect workers from being taken advantage of, as well as to make employers’ expectations clear.
However, more than a year and a half after the ordinance went into effect, thousands of domestic workers employed in the city are without contracts. And advocates say most of the employers who are supposed to provide these documents still don’t know about the law and the associated $500 to $1,000 fine for noncompliance.
“There needs to be more education and outreach,” said Ania Jakubek, an organizer with the workers rights group Arise Chicago.
She added that the employer — not the worker — should initiate a conversation about a contract and provide the document. In many cases, Jakubek said, workers who have approached their employers were met with silence.
“When the employer doesn’t respond, [workers] don’t push. They decide to back off and not to ask anymore with a fear they’re going to be losing a job,” she said.
Jakubek added that the City of Chicago should put forth a more coordinated effort from various agencies, including ad campaigns at park districts, schools, libraries and mass transit.
A spokesperson for Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection said in a statement that the city has partnered with Arise Chicago to “conduct outreach and provide information on labor rights.” She said when the ordinance went into effect in 2022, the city launched an ad campaign and alerted city council members, business development centers and other groups.
The BACP spokesperson also said her office has received 10 complaints related to the ordinance since January 2022.
Chicago is among three U.S. cities — Philadelphia and San Francisco are the others — that require contracts for domestic workers, said Ai-jen Poo, president of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
She said contracts for domestic workers are not “a silver bullet, but they give us one more tool to try to advocate for the rights of workers and to establish a new set of norms and power relations … that are overdue.”
Poo said the cause of many issues in this field of work is “the severe power imbalance that exists when you have a workplace where you have one worker, and a culture of work that is informal. When we refer to domestic work, we often call it ‘help,’ as opposed to the legitimate profession that it is for literally millions of workers.”
One study by the Economic Policy Institute estimates there are more than 56,000 domestic workers in the Chicago metro area, the majority of whom are women of color.
Poo said contracts are a step toward professionalizing a devalued field of work and protecting its long forgotten workforce.
She also has a message for the busy professionals who hire house cleaners, the parents who need childcare, folks who are looking for someone to tend to their aging parents.
“I wish more employers would see having a contract as an opportunity … to strengthen the relationship they have with this person who is coming into their home, oftentimes caring for the most important parts of their lives,” she said.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.