A new film and books about organizer and strategist Bayard Rustin bring attention to the crucial, hidden tradition of practical radicalism.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established basic protections for American workers, including a 40-hour workweek and a minimum wage. But certain workers were excluded from these protections, including domestic workers.
In the face of intense opposition from for-profit homecare industry groups, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and their allies have made great strides in recent years to right this wrong. On August 12, Illinois became the seventh state to extend these rights to domestic workers, joining Massachusetts, California, New York, Oregon, Hawaii, and Connecticut.
Inequality.org co-editor Sarah Anderson spoke with Magdalena Zylinska to learn more about this victory. Zylinska is a housecleaner and domestic worker organizer who focuses on outreach to Polish domestic workers, making sure they’re informed of their rights. Last year, she was appointed to be a Board Member at Arise Chicago, a faith-labor action group.
How did you first become involved in the effort to expand rights for domestic workers??
I became involved with the Arise Chicago workers center in 2013 after attending a green cleaning workshop offered to domestic workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. After the workshop, Anna Jakubek, an organizer with Arise Chicago, informed us that domestic workers have few labor rights. That’s what energized me to get involved with fighting for the Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.
Over the last couple of years, I have also gone to Springfield numerous times, talked to Senators and Representatives, and I testified on behalf of domestic workers regarding sexual harassment, which is something I have encountered in my workplace.
Can you explain the significance of the victory in Illinois? How will this reform change workers’ lives?
Many domestic workers would say that beyond labor protections, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in Illinois is about respect and dignity. Our victory in passing the legislation means that we have finally been recognized as workers by becoming included in labor rights that we have been historically excluded from.
The new law will make sure that home cleaners, nannies, care workers, and other domestic workers receive the state minimum wage, protection against sexual harassment, as well as a day of rest if they are employed by one employer for at least 20 hours a week by amending four state laws that previously excluded domestic workers: the Minimum Wage Law, the Illinois Human Rights Act, the One Day of Rest in Seven Act, and the Wages of Women and Minors Act.
Everyone deserves to have these basic rights. I believe that now when domestic workers encounter a problem, they will be less afraid to let the authorities know. Too many people are abused and mistreated. Protections will give domestic workers the right to defend themselves in unfortunate situations.
It is great to see this first step, but we still have a long way to go in making sure this law gets enforced. I’m very optimistic for the future.
How might this victory help build power for the continuing fight for a national bill of rights for domestic workers?
I think many people, including legislators, are unaware that domestic workers are excluded from state labor protections and face such high levels of exploitation. But when people actually hear our stories, they come to the conclusion that this is the right thing to do and this is the time to do it. This victory in Illinois brings greater visibility to our movement.
Illinois is also the seventh state to pass legislation to protect the rights of domestic workers. The other six states that have protections in place for domestic workers are California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Hawaii, Oregon, and New York. Together, this brings us one step closer to having full state protections for all domestic workers in the U.S.
For-profit homecare industry groups and the International Franchise Association sued the Labor Department to block expansion of labor protections, including overtime pay, to homecare workers. These groups claim they’re acting in the best interest of workers, that by expanding their rights, homecare workers would be forced into an unregulated underground market because their clients wouldn’t be able to pay for care through a regulated agency. Your response?
Homecare work is the second fastest-growing occupation in the country, and yet most homecare workers live in poverty despite the essential nature of their work for communities across the country. If we want to be able to age with dignity, we as a nation have to invest in homecare by treating this work as essential.
That means we have to put the funding into homecare that will allow workers to treat homecare as a sustainable job and ensure that consumers can afford the assistance they need. There is a major problem around affordability of homecare in the United States — but we can’t get rid of this problem by putting the burden on the backs of homecare workers.
That’s already happening, and as a result, we see high levels of turnover. Every day, the nation is losing qualified and dedicated homecare workers who love their jobs but can’t afford gas for their cars or oil to heat their houses in winter or food to feed their families.
Fighting against the nation’s most basic labor protections doesn’t protect these workers nor the consumers who need access to consistent care. It’s a misinformed and innately temporary fix that protects the bottom line of for-profit companies and franchising groups without solving the larger problems of funding care.
In contrast, we work with disability rights and senior groups, unions and worker centers that are genuinely working in collaboration to make sure there’s enough resources so that consumers and workers can get what they need. That’s a genuine solution, fueled by parties with genuinely overlapping interests.
How powerful are these industry opponents and what strategies have you used to get around them?
We have seen private for-profit actors in the homecare and au pair industries mount major opposition to our bill of rights legislation as well as to other efforts to raise worker protections in order to prevent abuse and trafficking.
In some instances, industry groups were able to retract their opposition after realizing that their interests in having a stable workforce were aligned with those of our campaigns. In other instances, that wasn’t possible.
We try to find companies and players that are dedicated to doing the right thing, and ensure that their voices are heard as well. For example, Care.com has supported many of our efforts.
At the end of the day, one of the most important things we can do is keep supporting the organizing and leadership of domestic workers and homecare workers, and building meaningful working partnerships with consumers of homecare and their families. Those coalitions and the unified voice of these stakeholders is ultimately what will win us victory.
What gives you hope for this movement?
I have been working at this for almost three years, and there were moments when I was worried that this victory would not come. When we visited legislators, it sometimes felt like they weren’t hearing us. But they did.
This bill was unanimously voted in by the Senate, and it passed out of both chambers with bipartisan support. Hopefully, other states will follow our lead with even stronger protections, like contracts. This won’t be easy, because different domestic work industries, like housecleaning and childcare, have different needs, but all of them need better guidelines for both workers and employers. Our industry is rapidly growing, especially around eldercare, so the bill also helps us prepare for the future by recognizing this important workforce.
What do you wish more people knew about domestic workers?
Every domestic worker job is different, and every house I clean is different. We work hard for our money. We have bills to pay. Many of us have families to support.
Even though we passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in Illinois, we still have a long way to go. Most of us in the industry do not get paid sick days or paid vacation. If we struggle or get sick, we do not get any compensation for the time we miss at work. Oftentimes, we do not get paid for additional responsibilities that are given to us at work. Employers do not always give notice if they are going on vacation, and I’ve had situations where employers can fire you on the spot. And it might mean losing income for two or three weeks before finding a replacement job.
My suggestion is for employers to take these things into consideration, and also try and build stronger relationships of dignity and respect with the domestic workers they employ.
For now, I’m just grateful that the Governor signed the bill. We had full support from the House and the Senate. This was a big coalition effort where we had broad support from faith, labor, and community groups, as well as employers organizations. The Illinois Domestic Workers Coalition was powered by local organizations, including AFIRE Chicago, Arise Chicago, Latino Union, Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, Women Employed, Heartland Alliance, and SEIU-HCII, as well as domestic workers, advocacy and community groups, and allies. More broadly, we also received support from the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA).
Magdalena Zylinska is a worker leader and Board Member at Arise Chicago.