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A Working Holiday : Embracing Tradition, a Group of Domesticas Celebrates the Good and Learns How to Change the Bad in Their Work

November 15, 1995|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They work 10- to 15-hour days, scrubbing and scouring homes for a living, cooking and caring for families not their own. There is little vacation. Some never get a day off. Some are swindled and abused. And most are overworked and underpaid.

Yes, many of them have thankless jobs, they say. But in the land of plenty, the women-- Sylvia, Ana, Vicenta, Libertad, Luz and their friends--agree that they have plenty for which to be thankful.

So, on Sunday, the 20 domesticas gathered around a Downtown office conference table turned into a festive dining room and gave thanks to God. For their jobs, for living in this country, for uniting as a group to celebrate a very American holiday-- El Dia de Gracias, Thanksgiving.

Each woman around the table stood and spoke. Many were choked with emotion, faces illuminated by flickering candles around a centerpiece of fresh fruit and scattered silk maple leaves. Humbled at hearing others speak about their own experiences--both good and bad--as domesticas , the women dabbed at tears or whispered a blessing: "Gracias a Dios ."

Before the night ended, the reverent mood of the women--all members of the Domestic Workers Project of the 9-year-old Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles--slowly had been transformed into an empowering rallying cry for their rights, for minimum wages, for benefits, for days off to spend with their families--and, above all, to be simply treated with dignity. "Dignidad!" "Justicia!" "Unidos!"

They were celebrating early because, for many, the actual Thanksgiving Day observance--a day of being with one's family, of celebrating, of resting--will be spent in the homes of their patrons and patronas .

Most of the domesticas say they will help their bosses prepare a turkey and all the trimmings. One told another about how she always chops the onions not only for her employer, but also for other women on the same street.

Several will be in charge of their employers' feasts, cooking for as many as 30 guests in homes from the Hollywood Hills to Pacific Palisades. And when the guests arrive, the domesticas will move from the kitchen into the nursery to baby-sit. Later, they will clean the kitchen and vacuum before they head home or back to their rooms in the same household.

All this with no extra pay, no added bonus, no day off for most of them.

On Sunday evening, the domesticas came to CHIRLA's headquarters to commemorate the holiday with two roasted pavos (turkeys) cooked by the organization's staff. They arrived wearing their Sunday best, handbags matching their shoes, their hair and makeup done for the event. Perfume wafted over steaming portions of turkey breast, mashed potatoes and stuffing.

Project director Cristina Riegos says talk of a group Thanksgiving celebration came about after last month's meeting when the domesticas met for the first time as an association and discussed how to ask their employers to pay into Social Security and deduct income tax from their wages--the members' choice of topic.

"I mentioned to them that in this country we have Thanksgiving Day. Some were familiar with it and all of them answered with a resounding 'yes' to do it," Riegos says. "I asked if they wanted a Latino menu or traditional American food."

They unanimously voted for the gravy.

"They want to observe the days that are observed by the rest of the country. They like the concept of giving thanks and resting and celebrating with other people," Riegos says. "They desperately want to be part of the United States."

As for working the Thanksgiving holiday, Riegos says, "It's not a crime to work that day, but these women should get compensated as any other salaried employee would with overtime pay or a comparable day off.

"In the majority of the cases that won't happen," she says, which is why she and the program help the domesticas "with skills on how they can assert themselves before they start a job, understand what their position is in a household and to ask for things such as time off or annual raises. In many cases they do get what they want, if they ask."

"Generally speaking, most domestic workers are entitled to minimum wage and overtime," says Michelle Yu Kim, an attorney with the Labor Defense Network, a nonprofit agency that provides legal representation, training and technical assistance to low-wage workers. Domestic workers should be treated like any other workers, she says. "The slight difference is that if the domestic worker lives in the employer's household, that worker is entitled to overtime after nine hours a day."

Kim says that if the only responsibility a domestic worker performs is baby-sitting or being a personal attendant to an infirm person--without housekeeping chores--then the law exempts that worker from receiving the minimum wage of $4.25 an hour and overtime.

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