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Domestic Workers Spurred Montgomery Protections

Washington Post

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 21, 2008; A01

Most Sundays for the past six years, about 25 live-in nannies and housekeepers from across the Washington area have gathered in Silver Spring to share stories of mandatory six-day workweeks, 14-hour days and salaries that amount to as little as $1 an hour.

Calling themselves the Committee of Women Seeking Justice, they gather in a circle and commiserate in English, Spanish, Hindi and French. Among the topics: no sick days, little overtime pay, feeling “on call” at all hours and sleeping on basement floors. Several have shared stories of having been kept as modern-day slaves, organizers said, rarely allowed out of the house and never seeing a cent.

Some are so worried their bosses will find out about the meetings that organizers use code — “Come to my nephew’s christening” or “Come to my niece’s birthday party” — when calling their employers’ homes.

What began as an informal support group soon blossomed into a political movement for workers’ rights. After four years of petition drives and appealing to local lawmakers, the group claimed a key victory last week, when the Montgomery County Council approved what are believed to be among the most far-reaching labor protections for domestic workers in the country.

A coalition of 31 religious, labor and community organizations provided legal advice, political savvy and emotional support, organizers said, but it was the passion of these women that sustained the cause.

“We were ready to say, ‘These abuses are over,’ ” said Ines Cruz Yslava of Silver Spring, a former live-in housekeeper who now works full time cleaning homes in Bethesda and Howard County.

The legislation, which County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has said he will sign, will require Montgomery employers to offer written contracts to nannies, housekeepers and cooks working at least 20 hours a week. The contracts will have to spell out wages and other benefits. The bill also requires that live-in employees have their own bedroom, equipped with a lock, and “reasonable access” to a bathroom, kitchen and laundry room.

Montgomery’s Office of Consumer Protection will enforce the measure and may fine violators as much as $1,000.

The legislation fell short of the group’s goal of a “domestic workers bill of rights” that would guarantee health insurance, paid vacation time and sick days, among other benefits.

But “it shows that their work is valuable,” said Jessica Salsbury, a staff attorney for Casa of Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group that hosts the weekly meetings and spearheaded the legislation.

The group started with about eight women and now has about 100, with an active core of 25, said Alexis De Simone, a Casa organizer. They represent 17 countries. About half are Latina, with most of the rest coming from Africa and Southeast Asia, De Simone said. Some socialize together on weekends and play on the same soccer team Sunday mornings.

As domestic workers, they are excluded from most federal labor protections, including those that mandate safe workplaces, prohibit retaliation for unionizing and outlaw discrimination based on race or religion, Salsbury said. Their lack of legal standing has deep historical roots, she said, hearkening back to the notion that domestic work was inferior because it was traditionally done by slave women. Unlike Virginia and the District, Salsbury said, Maryland entitles them to overtime pay.

After a year or so of sharing their plight, committee members and Casa organizers decided in 2004 to push for legal rights. The group began meeting with Montgomery council members and spending Sundays fanning out to downtown Silver Spring and Metro stops to gather signatures on petitions calling for certain guaranteed benefits, De Simone said.

During the week, they circulated petitions on buses, at playgrounds, in churches and at their English classes. The women collected at least half of the approximately 4,000 signatures supporting the legislation, De Simone said.

Cruz, 58, said she was motivated by a miserable decade as a live-in housekeeper in California. After arriving from El Salvador in 1976, she said, a law student promised her $1,000 a month to clean his house, do laundry, iron and cook. She said he required her to work seven days a week for $200 a month.

She said she stayed in part because she didn’t know where to turn for help. She is proud, she said, that she still managed to save enough money to bring her four children to the United States before moving to the Washington area in 1986.

Cruz still cleans houses, but she has vowed to never again live with an employer. Her two current employers treat her well, she said. Because she works fewer than 20 hours a week in Bethesda, she will not be covered under the new legislation. Still, she said, she hopes it will prompt discussions with her bosses about “putting something in writing,” hopefully including paid vacation time and sick days.

“These are good people,” Cruz said through a Spanish translator. “I hope we can do it.”

Another group member, who spoke on condition that she be referred to only by her first name of Martha because she worried about what her employers would think, said she had felt stuck living with an emotionally abusive couple. At the time, she said, she spoke little English, had no family or friends to turn to and didn’t know how to drive.

The couple brought her to Montgomery from their native Peru 14 years ago, she said. But promises of a $750 monthly salary, English classes and eight-hour work days evaporated when she got to Maryland, she said. She said she ended up making $250 a month.

Still, she was so grateful to them for sponsoring her U.S. visa, she said, that for two years she put up with mandatory 15-hour days and six-day workweeks, cooking, cleaning and caring for their young son.

“We brought you here,” she said the couple told her, “so you’ll do what we tell you.”

She said she felt confident enough to leave only after she met other domestic workers through church, took driving lessons and could afford her own car.

She said she now watches two children 18 hours a week for a Montgomery family and works an additional eight hours each week cleaning two houses. She is paid almost $20 an hour as a nanny. The parents, for whom she has worked for 12 years, give her paid time off for her birthday, when she’s sick and when they leave town, she said.

Although she feels well-treated, Martha said, she plans to continue the push to make such perks guaranteed job benefits. She said the group also plans to focus on trying to strip immunity protection from diplomats accused of abusing or enslaving their hired help.

“We deserve to be treated as professionals,” she said.

Montgomery council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who co-sponsored last week’s legislation, said a domestic workers bill of rights has little political support. He said that he is sympathetic to their plight but that it would be unfair to grant them rights that other low-wage workers, such as gas station attendants or taxi drivers, don’t receive.

Cruz and others say they’ll keep pushing anyway. But yesterday, the Committee of Women Seeking Justice did not hold its weekly meeting. They took a break, albeit a brief one, to celebrate.

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