State Helps Domestic Workers Who Are Fighting for Fair Pay

Times Staff Writer

Josefa Gonzalez said she worked nearly 70 hours a week helping to cook, clean and care for four elderly people in a private home. She earned $342 a week, about $5 an hour, she said, with no overtime pay, breaks or paid sick days.

When her boss, Slavko Beck, told her she also would help care for his ill mother, Gonzalez said, she asked for a raise. That, she said, is when Beck fired her.

She fought back and won more than $70,000 in back wages, with interest, in a judgment from the state labor commissioner’s office.


“It’s what I worked for,” said Gonzalez, 44, who emigrated from El Salvador and worked as an undocumented immigrant for many years before becoming a U.S. citizen. “I couldn’t keep my mouth shut anymore.”

Nannies, housecleaners and caretakers work in a largely unregulated industry, usually without contracts, timecards or any other detailed records. There are pluses for both sides: Employers can generally count on employees’ flexibility and willingness to work cheaply, and employees readily find work even if they don’t have immigration documents. Frequently, neither side pays taxes.

But the deal can go sour. Because the arrangements are unofficial, labor violations are common, according to employees, their advocates and academics. Workers have few protections and often are hard-pressed to prove they were wronged.

A small but growing number of workers -- most of them women -- are trying to change that. They and their advocates are confronting employers, forming collectives and pushing for legislation to guarantee more rights. They also are filing wage claims with the labor commissioner’s office, part of the state Department of Industrial Relations, which is responsible for enforcing labor laws.

Advocates in California have been closely watching what happened in New York, where the City Council passed a law in 2003 guaranteeing more rights for domestic workers, including a requirement that employers sign contracts on wages and benefits.

Disputes between domestic workers and their bosses show that, for all the mutual benefits and perceived closeness of such relationships, each side often sees them very differently.

Gonzalez’s boss, for instance, said he paid her well -- up to $500 a week -- and did not fire her. She quit, he said.

“I don’t know where this came from,” Beck, who did not attend the hearing, said in a phone interview. “She was not treated as an employee. It was like family.”

Cases involving household workers are very personal, and when a rift occurs, employees may feel used and employers betrayed, said Becky Monroe, an attorney who represents workers through the nonprofit organization Bet Tzedek Legal Services.

Peter Flanderka, who represents employers, said that when a worker is brought into a family, it’s frequently on a handshake.

“It’s an arrangement based on trust,” he said. So when a worker says she wasn’t treated fairly, he noted, it becomes her word against theirs.

Complicating matters, the industry is largely hidden behind closed doors.

Few statistics are available, but the state’s Employment Development Department estimated there were 229,000 private household workers in California in 2004, including gardeners. On average, the workers earned $268 per week. Because the numbers are gathered from employers’ tax filings, the number of workers may be much higher, said department spokeswoman Suzanne Schroeder.

Labor violations are hard to identify, said Dean Fryer, a spokesman for the labor commissioner.

“We cannot go out and do spot checks” in private homes, he said. “Because of that, we do have a difficult time enforcing the labor laws.”

The commissioner relies on employees to come forward with complaints. But Fryer acknowledged that many workers do not file claims because they fear being fired or deported or because they do not know they can.

Although the labor commissioner’s office does not keep track of wage claims filed by domestic workers specifically, attorneys and other advocates in Los Angeles and the Bay Area say they increasingly are encouraging and pursuing these filings.

The complaints are disturbing to some who oppose illegal immigration.

The fact that many undocumented workers are willing to bring their cases to the attention of state officials “shows that they have no fear of our government enforcing our immigration laws,” said Rick Oltman, Western field director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

“No workers should be cheated of their wages,” he said. “But the workers who are here should be legal workers.”

He said that if the government is worried about unscrupulous bosses, it should crack down on the ones who hire undocumented workers. Also, he said, some workers are bilking their bosses and the system.

Domestic workers, regardless of their immigration status, are entitled under the law to earn minimum wage -- $6.75 an hour -- and overtime pay. They also have the right to receive rest and meal breaks.

Juana Nicolas’ job is to educate domestic workers on those rights. Every week, Nicolas, who works at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, meets with household workers, encouraging them to keep records of their hours and wages and to attend free legal clinics if problems arise.

On a recent Friday afternoon at a busy bus stop at the corner of Pico and Rimpau boulevards, Nicolas ran up to women getting off buses and heading home from Westside jobs.

“Are you a household worker?” Nicolas asked in Spanish as she handed the women fliers listing their rights. “Do you have a problem with your boss? Call here.”

Even if workers are earning less than minimum wage, Nicolas said, they often are reluctant to complain or quit because they support families here or in their native countries. They also may have become attached to the children or the elderly people they care for.

Organizers and the workers themselves are collaborating with state Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez, who is drafting legislation that would expand the rights and benefits of domestic employees.

Montanez (D-San Fernando) said the workers need greater protections under health and safety laws because they use toxic cleaning supplies and can suffer other injuries in what often is a very physical job. Many of the women do not have health insurance, nor do their employers cover them for disability or worker’s compensation.

“They are such a critical part of people’s personal lives, and yet we fail to treat them like they are that important,” she said.

The only way to ensure that household workers are treated fairly is to enact -- and enforce -- laws specifically designed for them, said Grace Chang, a UC Santa Barbara professor and author of “Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy.”

“Certainly it’s not the case that every single employer is exploitative,” she said. “You’re relying on the goodwill of the employer and awareness of the employee. The combination of those two factors is unfortunately a little too rare.”

In one case handled by the labor commissioner’s office, a Mexican immigrant began working as a live-in housecleaner and caretaker for a family soon after she arrived in the U.S. in 1990. For 13 years, Celia Flores Ramirez, 62, said she cleaned the house, took care of the pets and baby-sat for the couple’s grandchildren. She earned $175 cash each week, she said.

In 2003, Ramirez said, the family told her they no longer needed her and offered a paltry severance. “They didn’t value my work,” she said.

Ramirez, who said she never made minimum wage, filed a claim for unpaid wages of more than $50,000. She received a judgment of about $1,800. Her former boss, Carlos Alvarado, did not return repeated calls for comment.

Not all of the cases, of course, involve Latino workers. Lang Fan An, 60, responded to an ad in a Chinese-language newspaper and began working for Wen Chang’s family as a live-in housecleaner in January 2002. Both sides agree she earned $300 a week to clean, cook and care for the family six days a week. The Changs gave her a list of jobs, which included washing clothes, scrubbing bathrooms and preparing meals.

An said the work took 16 hours a day and that she wasn’t able to take breaks. The Changs fired her in December after she complained, she said. “Life was not good for me,” she said.

The Changs, immigrants themselves, said An worked only four to five hours a day and often watched television or ran personal errands. The couple said they paid her fairly and gave her a bedroom and a car to use.

“We respected our housekeeper as part of the family,” Wen Chang said. “We treated her 100% right.”

The Changs said their housecleaner quit. She filed a wage claim for about $45,000. The case is pending.

The housekeeper who won $70,000, Gonzalez, also came to feel exploited. She said she often worked 11 1/2 -hour days, six days a week. Most of her earnings went to support relatives here and in El Salvador.

Though Gonzalez said she never complained, she knew she and two co-workers weren’t being paid enough. After she was fired in 2003, Gonzalez said, she sought help from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. The Labor Commission issued its decision in May 2004.

“It gives me satisfaction that I did something,” said Gonzalez, now a certified nurse’s assistant.

Beck said her allegations were “outright lies,” but he has no plans to appeal.

“A judgment is a judgment,” he said. “Obviously we’ll have to pay.”