Five things to know about a new Chicago law for domestic workers and the people who hire them

home care worker
In this file photo from April 2016, home care provider Elaine Walker takes care of her two daughters Melissa, left, and, Dasia, at their home in south suburban South Holland. Starting this month in Chicago, according to a new city law, employers must provide domestic workers with written contracts that include the agreed-upon wage and work schedule information. M. Spencer Green / Associated Press
home care worker
In this file photo from April 2016, home care provider Elaine Walker takes care of her two daughters Melissa, left, and, Dasia, at their home in south suburban South Holland. Starting this month in Chicago, according to a new city law, employers must provide domestic workers with written contracts that include the agreed-upon wage and work schedule information. M. Spencer Green / Associated Press

Five things to know about a new Chicago law for domestic workers and the people who hire them

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Domestic workers in Chicago must be provided written contracts from their employers, according to a new city ordinance that took effect this month. Advocates say Chicago is the largest city in the U.S. to require domestic worker contracts. Local groups are now working to inform the tens of thousands of domestic workers in the city and the people who hire them.

Here are five things you need to know.

1. What does the ordinance say?

As of Jan. 1, all house cleaners, nannies and caregivers working in Chicago must be given written contracts that include the agreed-upon wage and work schedule information — and be written in the workers’ preferred language.

All domestic workers — regardless of their immigration status — are covered under the law, according to Militza Pagán, an attorney with the Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

2. Why do workers rights groups consider the law a win?

Before this ordinance, Isabel Santos, a nanny and house cleaner with 20 years of experience, said she had no way of defending herself against unjust working conditions. “The contract is good for us and our employers” in setting clear expectations and boundaries, Santos said.

Workers say the contracts protect them against wage theft, from being given extra duties outside the scope of work to which they previously agreed upon, and from last-minute demands to perform work that causes them to be late for their next job.

For Sofia Portillo, who has been cleaning houses in Chicago for 28 years, the new ordinance requiring written contracts for the city’s domestic workers is a long-awaited right. A written contract is “an opportunity to increase and improve our communication” with employers, Portillo said via a translator. “We hope that this contract doesn’t reach all these workers so late in your life, like me.”

Both Santos and Portillo are members of ARISE Chicago, a workers rights group that has long pushed for the new ordinance.

3. How will the ordinance be implemented and enforced?

Domestic workers and groups, like ARISE Chicago and the Shriver Center, are hoping to spread the word about the new law via media outlets and word of mouth. They credit the City of Chicago’s Office of Labor Standards for doing its part to educate the public through its digital advertisements and social media campaigns. Still, said Pagán with the Shriver Center, “it will take some time for workers and employers to learn about the new law — that’s always the case with a new law.”

Pagán said if an employer does not provide a written contract, a domestic worker can file a complaint with the Office of Labor Standards. Employers could be fined $500 each time they fail to comply, Pagán said, adding that it is illegal for employers to take adverse action against workers who ask for a written contract.

4. How many workers does the law affect in the Chicago area?

There are more than 56,000 domestic workers in the Chicago metro area, according to a 2020 study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The study shows more than 90% of Chicago-area domestic workers are female, about half are either Black or Latino, and roughly 38% are immigrants, according to study findings provided by the Shriver Center. Many domestic workers are also undocumented, according to ARISE Chicago.

5. What do employers and workers need to do?

Ultimately, Pagán said, “it is the employer’s responsibility to know the law … and provide workers a written contract.” That means anyone who directly employs a house cleaner, nanny or caretaker in their home must provide a written contract for the domestic worker. If households use an agency, the agency is responsible for providing workers with the contract.

Pagán said employers — be they agencies or households — can visit chi.gov/care to learn about domestic workers’ rights and about the new contract requirement. ARISE Chicago also provides sample contracts in multiple languages that employers can use.

Domestic workers can ask their employers to provide written contracts. ARISE Chicago offers workers training and support. The organization has a hotline provided in three languages: English, 312-833-1810; Spanish, 312-833-1058; and Polish, 312-835-1085.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.