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Proposal to establish rights for domestic workers splits lawmakers

Proponents say it would extend basic protections to more employees, but opponents say it would drive up costs.

February 10, 2012|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento -- Maria Moctezuma's workday began at 6 a.m. and often ran until midnight when she was nanny, housekeeper and cook for a family of four in Rancho Cucamonga.

She hurried through her own meals in five minutes, she said, so she could get back to a long list of chores that included washing the family car, scrubbing the bathrooms, serving at late-night parties and caring for an infant and a toddler.

Sometimes Moctezuma was lucky to get six hours sleep between shifts. She made $200 a week, below the minimum wage.

"But I was desperate to work so I could feed my children," said the diminutive mother of four.

Moctezuma and hundreds of other domestic employees were bused to Sacramento recently for a bilingual rally at the state Capitol. With a California-style mix of immigrant grit and pop culture, they seized on the Oscar-nominated film "The Help" to support a proposal for workplace rights.

Likening their plight to that of the movie characters — African American maids in the civil rights-era South — they urged lawmakers to adopt the strongest protections for household help in the nation.

Across the country, domestic workers have been pressing for rights more commonly associated with the factory floor. New York adopted overtime and time-off requirements in 2010, and activists are pushing for similar laws in at least four other states. In December, President Obama weighed in, proposing that wage and overtime guarantees be extended to some workers who care for the disabled and elderly.

California, with its size and its abundance of cheap immigrant labor, is at the forefront of the debate. Stories like Moctezuma's drove Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) to propose giving as many as 200,000 nannies and other workers the same overtime pay, meal breaks and time off that apply to most laborers. His bill would go further than the one on New York's books.

"Ask any parent, and they will tell you that domestic workers like nannies, caregivers and housekeepers do some of the hardest and most necessary work around," Ammiano said. They need to be treated "with dignity, respect and with the same basic protections that many of us already have."

But the idea of inserting workplace regulations into the privacy of the home is anathema to many. Opposition has come from staffing agencies up and down the state, from those in rural areas and big cities alike.

"This is the type of legislation that drives everyday Californians crazy," said Sen. Doug La Malfa (R-Richvale). "Now parents have to worry about getting sued for not having a detailed wage statement, workers' comp and having meal and rest breaks for your baby-sitter? The cost of date night just went way up."

Some domestic workers are already entitled to overtime and meal breaks in California. But there is an exemption for "personal attendants," including those who care for children, the elderly or the disabled. Ammiano's bill would require anyone who hires an adult nanny or other personal attendant to pay time-and-a-half if the employee works more than eight hours in one day or more than 40 hours in one week.

Domestic workers on duty for 24 hours would have to be provided eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. A live-in domestic worker would not be required to work more than five days without a day off.

The measure would also guarantee such workers a 30-minute meal break after five hours of labor and 10-minute rest breaks after four hours. Employers would have to maintain pay and time-off records and pay workers a fine of $50 a day for each day on which violations occurred.

Opponents of the proposal said a second nanny or caregiver could be needed to cover meal and rest breaks taken by the primary worker, and many people who need domestic services cannot shoulder such costs.

Fred Nisen of Berkeley has cerebral palsy and already spends half his income paying an assistant to bathe and help dress him and to cook, clean, drive him to medical appointments and accompany him on business travel. Requiring that he pay overtime and provide fill-in help "would be more money than I can afford," Nisen said.

Ammiano's bill (AB 889), dubbed the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, passed the Assembly last summer. It was held up in the Senate because legislative staffers estimated that it could cost the cash-strapped state at least $385,000 a year to investigate complaints that would inevitably roll in from domestic workers.

The Assemblyman said he is trying to find a way to reduce the cost.

Moctezuma, now 64, eventually traded in her Rancho Cucamonga job for one with fewer hours. She never received overtime pay, she said, for late nights spent caring for sick children and cleaning up after guests had left.

She said the rights bill would foster better communication with employers and "good, healthy labor standards."

Other workers at the rally said the legislation would help them stand up to exploitative employers.

"Sometimes they don't pay us what we have earned," said Rosa Cordova, 69, who was hired by adult siblings to take care of their elderly mother in Los Angeles. "Without this [bill], they will keep violating our basic rights."

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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