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Column: In the midst of wildfires and a pandemic, domestic workers need protections more than ever

Women wearing masks raise their fists in a protest at a park
Community organizer Edna Sandoval, center, raises her fist along with a group of domestic workers protesting at MacArthur Park on Thursday in support of a bill to extend California workplace protections to domestic workers.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Sandra Martinez, 45, a housekeeper, used to work three days a week before the pandemic struck. Now she does the same work for one day’s pay, because her employer thought one housekeeping appointment was less risky than three.

She used to take three buses to work, an epic commute that made her workdays 15 hours long. Now she pays out of pocket for Uber, exhausting her savings, because her family heard that taking the bus was unsafe.

As we all try to take fewer risks, housekeepers, caregivers and child-care providers like Martinez have paid the price. Nearly three-quarters of domestic workers reported losing their jobs in an April survey. Many domestic workers who can afford only to take the bus to their jobs have lost them. A disproportionate number of domestic workers and their family members have contracted COVID-19 and died.

In California, an estimated 350,000 domestic workers employed by more than 2 million families have no workplace safety protections during a time when their work couldn’t be more dangerous or essential.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom is considering a bill that might finally change that. Senate Bill 1257, which passed with little opposition in the Assembly and Senate, would end the exclusion of domestic workers from California Division of Occupational Safety and Health protections. Newsom has until Sept. 30 to sign it into law.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), said that ending the exclusion of domestic workers from workplace safety protections is also about showing voters that political leaders plan to keep their promises about confronting modern-day legacies of racism.

“We can’t just give lip service to institutional racism and veto this. How does that make sense? This is about destroying one of the final legacies of slavery and racism. It’s the right thing to do,” Durazo said.

The exclusion of domestic workers from labor protections has its origins in Reconstruction-era politics. Southerners wanted to continue reaping the economic benefits of slavery even after its abolition. Freed male slaves were pressed into sharecropping, and many freed female slaves could find work only in the homes of their former masters.

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When Congress gave employees the right to form unions in 1935, domestic workers and farm laborers — largely freed slaves or their descendants — were excluded by legislators to curry favor with Southern Democrats. When labor standards for workweeks and workdays were established three years later, domestic workers and farm laborers were again excluded for the same reason.

Domestic work, done by women for centuries with no pay, has been systematically devalued in order to preserve a system that benefited domestic employers. But it is one of the most dangerous and injurious types of work, full of the repetitive, strenuous motions that commonly lead to injury.

Emily Uy, a 61-year-old, 5-foot-1 Filipina woman, felt something crack in her back a few years ago while attempting to lift a patient who was losing control of her muscles.

Her employer, who had refused her requests to hire an assistant, also refused to help with her $7,000 medical bill, she said. She didn’t want to ask her client, who was living on a fixed income. So she found a loan and paid it off in 24 installments over two years.

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“We really need protection when we get hurt. If we get sick or hurt, we don’t get paid,” Uy said.

A new survey conducted by the City University of New York found that domestic workers reported rates of back injury comparable to those of construction workers.

A third of respondents also said they lacked adequate personal protective equipment, and just 1 in 4 had received any safety training for pandemic conditions. More than 67% feared retaliation if they refused to perform an unsafe task, according to the study.

A woman places a card on an altar set up on the ground at a domestic workers protest at a park
Maegan Ortiz, executive director of Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California, places a message card at a memorial altar to fallen domestic workers assembled at the MacArthur Park protest.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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Pandemic conditions have also led to an explosion in the popularity of Clorox cleaning products, thanks to their prominent placement on the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s lists of recommended disinfectants to protect against COVID-19. Families are insisting on using bleach products because of virus fears, said Maegan Ortiz, executive director of Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California, a Southern California group that helps organize domestic workers. Clorox revenues are up more than 20% on the year, and the company saw its highest stock price ever.

For Carmen Jimenez, 53, the bleach has meant headaches, inflamed allergies and trouble breathing. She was laid up in bed for three days with flu-like symptoms, but her employer still insisted on Clorox products.

“I’m just tired. I realize they don’t respect us and our health,” Jimenez said.

The domestic workforce in California is almost entirely composed of women and immigrants who earn minimum wage or less. There has never been a good reason for excluding them from workplace safety protections, and there’s never been a more dangerous time to work in California.

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Record wildfires rage across the state, and domestic workers will be asked to clean up the aftermath. An airborne virus stalks every indoor space, and without safety protocols and PPE, they cannot protect themselves or their families.

Domestic workers facing these dangers, with the help of groups such as the California Domestic Workers Coalition, are awakening to the injustice of their conditions. A group of about 50 domestic workers gathered Thursday in MacArthur Park around an altar to fallen domestic workers decorated with Clorox products, mops and cleaning buckets.

Rosalinda, a domestic worker who was not given permission to attend the protest by the Beverly Hills family she works for, spoke via a recorded message.

A woman holds her daughter as they both sit on the ground while wearing masks
Diana Mendoza embraces her daughter Naima Wilson, 8, during the MacArthur Park protest in support of protections for domestic workers.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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“Look at my eyes, so red from working. Sometimes I cannot sleep because I am too tired. We need protection. You can work from home, but we have to do our work in other people’s homes.”

After the speeches concluded and the altar was cleaned up, most of us went home. But on the walk to my car, I ran into some of the domestic workers from the rally at the bus stop.

It was 9 o’clock on Thursday morning, and they had to go to work.


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