OLYMPIA — Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Gov. Jay Inslee are pushing for a “Domestic Workers Bill of Rights,” intended to protect workers from abusive employers and provide a minimum wage, overtime and breaks.
The proposed bills in the House and Senate are geared toward closing gaps in existing labor laws that exclude some domestic workers from, for example, a minimum hourly wage.
Meanwhile, news reports have documented the uniquely vulnerable plight of domestic workers in the United States, many of whom are women and immigrants.
In addition to general workers’ rights, the legislation also mandates a written agreement between workers and their employers, and expressly prohibits employers from threatening workers with regard to their immigration status.
Under the bills, domestic workers could not be fired without proper notice, and the Department of Labor & Industries could investigate complaints and issue penalties. A work group on domestic worker issues would also be established.
During Monday’s Senate hearing, several immigrant women shared their stories of sexual harassment and wage theft as domestic workers.
One domestic worker from Vancouver, Washington, testified to the committee that her male employer, when his wife was out of town, asked her to perform all of her duties naked. When she refused, he threatened to call immigration.
Enriqueta Vega, who testified in Spanish, told lawmakers that she was making $100 for 12-hour days. The state’s minimum wage is $13.50.
“I believed this to be a fair and decent wage,” she said, noting that it wasn’t until a decade later that she learned about workers’ rights from Casa Latina, a Seattle-based immigrant worker rights organization that helped pass Seattle’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2018.
Employers of domestic workers also testified in favor of the bill, describing the “selfless” work that nannies and caretakers provide.
Jordan Goldwarg of Seattle told the committee that when he and his partner hired a cleaner, they were not focused on their rights or well-being. The bill, Goldwarg said, would help educate employers on best practices.
Although the vast majority of those who testified supported the bills, those who opposed them brought up concerns about au pairs — foreign child-care workers who live with their host family and would be included in the legislation.
Critics argued that host families should not have to pay au pairs minimum wage, as they already cover room and board. They also pointed to the fact that au pairs are already regulated by the U.S. State Department.
Other individuals brought up the concern of aging Washingtonians who may rely on relatives for care. According to Yasmin Trudeau, legislative director for the attorney general, the Attorney General’s Office will be working on that concern, and will likely “compromise” on a substitute bill.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the concern that the state Attorney General’s Office is working to address in legislation intended to strengthen protections for domestic workers. The concern is about the bill’s impact on aging Washingtonians, and not concerns regarding au pairs.