“The Help” Gets Its Due

February 24, 2012 | Slate |

In November of 2010, New York state’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights—the first such law in the nation—went into effect, giving some 200,000 nannies, health aides, housekeepers, private cooks, and other at-home workers considerable power to address the poor conditions they often encounter in their unusual workplaces. Around the same time, the Urban Justice Center began holding a monthly legal clinic to help domestic workers file complaints. And the state Department of Labor started prioritizing their claims, according to lawyers who file them. (The New York State Department of Labor did not respond to inquiries.) The uptick of attention to domestic workers’ cases filed both before and after the new law went into effect has already resulted in dozens of domestic workers collecting awards of back pay and penalties ranging from $5,000 to $100,000.

The trend toward better treatment of domestic workers goes beyond New York. In December, the Obama administration proposed new federal regulations that would give home care workers employed through agencies new protections. In California, a bill of rights similar to New York’s is pending. Meanwhile, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an advocacy group that now has 35 local affiliates around the country, is trying to ride—and perhaps push—the wave with a visibility campaign organized around the movie The Help.

In New York, the biggest changes involve overtime. Before the law, the highest overtime anyone was required to pay was one-and-a-half times minimum wage—or $10.88 per hour. Now, anyone directly employed within the home is entitled to pay at one-and-a-half times their hourly rate if they work more than 40 hours in a week. (For live-in domestic workers, overtime pay starts after 44 hours.)

“Overtime violations are rampant,” says Nicole Hallett, one of several attorneys who staff the Urban Justice Center’s free, monthly legal clinic. Hallett notes the problem is worst among live-in employees, who make up 30 percent of the domestic workforce. “I have yet to see a live-in worker who’s being paid overtime at the correct rate.”

The law brings other dignifying elements to a difficult line of work. Domestic employees must now have one day off every week or be paid overtime if they agree to work that day; a 20-minute break after working at least six hours in a row; and, after they’ve been employed for a year, three paid vacation days annually. Families that employ full-time workers are even responsible for paying unemployment and workers-compensation taxes.