Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Wednesday April 24th, 2013, 3:58pm

Domestic Workers' Bill Of Rights Expected To Go Up For Vote In Illinois Senate Thursday

A measure that would recognize the legal rights of domestic workers in Illinois is expected to go up for a vote in the state Senate Thursday.

The Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights Act, SB 1708, sponsored by State Sen. Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago), would require that employers of nannies, house cleaners and caregivers pay their workers no less than the  minimum wage and allow for a least one day off a week.

The measure, which has 13 co-sponsors in the Senate, would also require written contracts and guarantee the right to paid time off, pay for all work hours, meal and rest periods, and an environment free from sexual harassment.

“It’s basically time to really cut some of the last remaining, obvious cords connected to slavery that we still have,” said Eric Rodriguez, executive director of the Latino Union of Chicago, one of the lead organizations pushing for the bill.

Worker-rights advocates say domestic workers play a critical role in Illinois’ economy by caring for children, the elderly, people with disabilities and homes, yet for years they’ve worked in the shadows.

The domestic workforce, mostly made up of women, has historically been excluded from protections under state and federal laws extended to workers in other industries.

For example, a 1974 amendment to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act extended minimum wage and overtime protections to domestic workers, but its broad exemptions have left many of the workers without protection, according to a 2011 report from the National Employment Law Project (PDF).

"The protections that so many other workers take for granted like the right to overtime, for example, domestic workers just aren’t afforded those same protections," said Andrea Mercado, campaign director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

It's not clear how many domestic workers are in Illinois, Rodriguez said.

"That’s the sad part about this industry,” he said.

There are about 60,000 countable domestic workers as part of an agency in the state, but that figure doesn't account for Illinois' isolated workers who would likely push the number into the hundreds of thousands, Rodriguez said.

"The whole purpose of this Bill of Rights is for the invisible workers, the isolated workers who are one worker per household," Rodriguez said.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance estimates there are two million domestic workers nationwide.

Melissa Josephs with Women Employed said local domestic workers are not protected by the Illinois Human Rights Act, so they're not covered if they are sexually harassed.

“It’s about time that they get included in a lot of laws,” she said.

Josephs added that many domestic workers are live-in employees and, essentially, work around the clock.

"It’s a lot different than working an eight-hour day in terms of when you get rest periods, when you get time off, how much you're paid,” she said. "So we're spelling a lot of these things out. We're asking the employers to provide these things in writing and contracts.”

If the Senate approves the measure, the House would also have to approve it before the legislation is sent to Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk.

Rodriguez said domestic workers have made many trips to Springfield to share their personal stories with state senators, and “That’s really made an impact."

He said he's optimistic the bill will pass.

“We’re doing pretty good, so hopefully there aren't any last-second tactics by any opposition," he said. "We should be OK for this part of the campaign.”

If approved, Rodriquez said the bill would be heard in its first House committee on May 10. The legislation would need to go up for a full House vote no later than May 31, the last day of the spring legislative session, he said.

"Even though we haven’t done any on-the-ground work to push the bill [in the House], there’s already been legislators who have heard about it and are very interested," Rodriguez added.

Rodriquez said his group has not yet reached out to Quinn regarding the proposal because it's taking the process "phase by phase."

If signed into law, Illinois would be the second state to ensure that domestic workers receive various labor protections. New York passed its version of the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights in 2010.

Mercado said in addition to Illinois, there are four other ongoing legislative battles regarding domestic workers' rights in California, Massachusetts, Hawaii and Oregon. Ohio Sen. Charleta Tavares (D-Columbus) is also expected to introduce a Domestic Workers Act sometime soon, according to a release on her website.

California’s legislature passed a similar bill in 2012, but Democratic Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it.

“I think it’s an issue who’s time has come,” Mercado said. “Everyone’s lives have been touched by a domestic worker. I think all of us have someone in our families that have done house cleaning or care giving or childcare, and all of our families have needed someone to help us take care of an aging parent or our children or help us take care of our homes.”

A November national survey of more than 2,000 U.S. domestic workers found that 23 percent of workers were paid less than their state’s minimum wage requirements and 48 percent of the workers reported not making enough to support their own families.

Few workers reported receiving retirement or pension benefits or health insurance through their employer. The survey also cited job conditions that prevented the workers from getting at least five hours of sleep, as well as being scheduled to work during their scheduled time off. Read Progress Illinois' full report on the survey here.

“I think we know that working conditions for domestic workers aren’t going to change automatically the moment that a bill gets signed into law," Mercado said. "But, we think that a bill is an incredibly important step forward that helps us in making a societal shift and shifting towards really recognizing all of the work that goes into caring for elders and caring for children and our homes in this country."

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