The following testimony was delivered by CLS attorney Nadia Hewka to Philadelphia City Council on October 22, 2019.
My name is Nadia Hewka, thank you to the committee for inviting me to testify today on behalf of Community Legal Services. I am here to wholeheartedly support the Philadelphia Domestic Workers Bill of Rights as it will provide needed workplace protections for this vulnerable workforce, most of whom are women of color, many of whom are immigrants. Domestic workers make other work possible, and providing baseline protections will help make these necessary jobs better, safer jobs.
Domestic workers have historically been excluded from many of our country’s labor laws. The current legal landscape leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by bad employers. We’ve seen some of these horrific cases, where women are practically enslaved in private residences and have nowhere to turn, fearing retaliation including immigration consequences, often relying on the job for housing. These are unlike other workplaces, as the work happens in isolation, behind closed doors, leading to instances of severe exploitation including sexual harassment, underpayment of wages, extreme work hours with no time off. Because this important workforce in Philadelphia and elsewhere primarily consists of immigrant women, they face additional fears and lack a safety net. Multiplied over the approximately 16,000 domestic workers in Philadelphia, allowing these workers to be exploited in this way exacerbates our poverty and income inequality problem in our City.
The bill before you will go a long way towards remedying this historical injustice in Philadelphia. It is the result of a collaborative process over the summer in which CLS participated, together with the PA Domestic Workers Alliance and its amazing members, Councilwoman Quinones Sanchez and her staff, the Mayor’s Office of Labor, and the Law Department. It builds on what we have learned from this council’s bold action on prior pro-worker ordinances, including Fair Workweek, Wage Theft, and Paid Sick Leave. We ask you to take this next step to include more workers under the protection of our laws.
We were careful in drafting this bill to avoid any issues with preemption. Rather than focusing on raising the minimum wage or extending paid overtime protections which would be preempted by our state minimum wage law, we are focused on what this city can do for workers.
First, this bill prohibits discrimination in hiring and firing of domestic workers, getting rid of a historical anachronism in the Fair Practices Law. We are united on this point: no worker should be turned away or fired for her race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other illegal factor, and no category of workers should be written out of these basic protections. The Commission on Human Relations has been consulted on this matter and endorses this change.
Next the bill requires domestic workers to have written contracts with employers that clearly spell out hours, duties and other important provisions. Why is this important? Our clients routinely get told to take on more and more and end up working extra hours, often for no additional compensation; knowing your job duties and hours allows you to plan for your own life and have a more equal relationship with your employer; it also helps us figure things out when there is a dispute, such as over hours or pay. This would be an important new right for workers and we are looking forward to helping spread the word to this workforce.
Third, under this law the worker as the right to take rest and meal breaks. Right now, there is no such requirement and as a result, many care workers are made to perform this difficult, draining work around the clock with no breaks. Under this law, workers will get a 30 minute meal break after 5 hours of consecutive on-duty time, and live-in domestic workers can get a day off after 6 consecutive days of work.
Finally, this bill pioneers an innovative system for paid time off that deals with the realities of domestic workers who work for multiple employers, allowing for portability of benefits so that workers can take time off that they’ve accumulated across multiple jobs. Hours will be earned at the same rate as the current Paid Sick leave law, 1 hour for every 40 hours of work, but we are extending this benefit to folks who are essentially gig workers. Domestic workers also get sick, sometimes they get sick because they are caring for the children of working parents. Many have no health insurance nor access to public benefits, so it is especially important that they get access to paid time off.
Many of the details of this system will be worked out by a task force, which will include domestic workers and their employers, as well as other advocates. This task force will also be a forum for other issues that may arise when enforcing this law and will work with Council and with the Mayor’s Office of Labor to make recommendations.
This committee today has the chance to take a historic step and vote in favor of this bill to correct current inequities that leave this workforce mostly unprotected. Your vote will help turn their important jobs into better jobs and will let them know that Philadelphia has their backs.