The very nature of their work keeps domestic workers hidden from view. It might have stayed that way but for the commitment of organizers like Katie Joaquin. In 2013 domestic workers used public policy and their powerful voices to win a workplace right they had been denied for decades: overtime pay. In 2016, they are advocating again to make that hard-fought right permanent.
Fifty women from all over California stood smiling around Governor Jerry Brown. He had just signed a new landmark law: the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.
Almost a decade in the making, California became the third state where workers employed in other people’s homes are finally entitled to protections long taken for granted in other occupations. Only New York and Hawaii have similar laws.
Katie Joaquin, campaign director for the California Domestic Workers Coalition, was there that day, September 26, 2013. Two years prior, she had been a fellow with the Women’s Policy Institute—a program that teaches grassroots women leaders to use public policy to advocate for social change. As a fellow, Joaquin helped craft a precursor bill to the one signed by Brown. She was also instrumental in the law’s passage.
Brown planned to leave the room as soon as he signed the bill. But then Joaquin saw Emiliana, a tiny Filipina woman in her 80s, approach Brown. For years, Emiliana worked 14-hour shifts earning only $50 a day.
“This means so much to me,” she told Brown with tears in her eyes. Joaquin said the governor’s face softened. She said, “For me, that was a moment.”
A Study that Catapulted a Movement
When Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, it intentionally excluded domestic workers because they were primarily African-American women who were not considered equal to other workers. In addition, many policy makers did not consider work in the home—historically done by women—as real work. California followed federal laws in excluding domestic workers in basic employment protections. In recent years, many domestic workers were scared of deportation and did not know about recourses available through the law. So they remained silent about their workplace conditions.
They might have remained in the shadows if Mujeres Activas y Unidas (MUA), a nonprofit that promotes the rights of Latina immigrant women and a grant partner of the Women’s Foundation of California, hadn’t commissioned a study in 2004. MUA knew anecdotally that many domestic workers were underpaid, overworked, and in some cases, physically, sexually or emotionally abused. But it had no quantitative data to effectively advocate for workplace protections.
MUA discovered that around 11 percent of the 246 women surveyed in the San Francisco area earned less than California’s minimum wage. The majority did not receive breaks for rest or meals. One in five women were insulted or threatened by employers, and 9 percent were sexually harassed.
Joaquin was an organizer at the Filipino Advocates for Justice (FAJ) at the time of the study, which kept getting unsettling phone calls from women asking questions such as, “I’m getting paid $5 a day. Is that okay?”
Armed with data, these organizations joined forces with other nonprofits to visit the state capitol. Joaquin said legislative staffers often appeared perplexed about the issue.
“Domestic work?” they asked. “Do you mean domestic violence?”
Despite the policy makers’ ignorance, the coalition pushed for legislation that called for overtime pay, meal and rest breaks and a guaranteed eight hours of sleep for workers who lived in their employers’ homes in 2006. The bill made it all the way to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk. He vetoed it.
The loss was heartbreaking.
The Movement Grows Stronger
Two years later, a housekeeper named Vilma Serralta sued her employers claiming they paid her only $1,000 to $1,300 per month, but forced her to work 14 hours a day, six days a week cleaning, cooking and taking care of the couple’s daughter. Her case mobilized domestic workers across California. With the 69-year old housekeeper leading the way, dozens of workers demonstrated in front of the 6-bedroom, multi-million mansion of Serralta’s former employers.
That was another moment for Joaquin.
“Every woman who marched was transformed. I was transformed.” Joaquin said. “There are certain moments in life when you’re facing something that you’re scared to do and you decide to do it anyway—and it changes you forever.”
The case brought needed attention to the plight of domestic workers. “Cases like Vilna’s started to shift the consciousness,” Joaquin said. “Workers could now say, ‘I’m not alone.’”
Joaquin held meetings at places like McDonald’s and grocery stores to organize Filipina workers. In 2011, they tried again for a law in Sacramento. They were policy insiders by then. In 2011 and 2012, five leaders in the domestic worker movement became fellows at the Women’s Policy Institute (WPI). They studied how policy and politics work: drafting a successful bill; winning over wary legislators; and building on their momentum to increase community support.
Joaquin and her domestic workers team named themselves the “macheteres,” meaning machetes in Spanish. They were determined to slash through prejudices and bureaucracies to win rights for women who historically did not have a voice and as a result, did not have equal rights.
Joaquin played a critical role in helping to pass what would eventually become the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, said WPI teammate Claudia Reyes.
“She was always working, always thinking and always strategizing,” said Reyes. Before key votes in the Senate and Assembly, Joaquin urged the group to lobby legislators right up until the last minute, grabbing elected officials during breaks for one last chat.
In 2012, the bill made it to Governor Brown’s desk before he vetoed it. But the “macheteres” persevered. Even after the WPI fellowship ended, they organized and worked connections in the capitol.
It all paid off. The governor signed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2013. One hundred thousand domestic workers, the vast majority of them women, now had rights to overtime pay.
More Work to Do
It was a huge victory but Joaquin said their work is not done. First, the original law will sunset on January 1, 2017 if it’s not renewed. There’s now a third WPI team working on making overtime pay permanent in California. Second, domestic workers must be educated about their rights. Many workers are still afraid. They fear retribution by employers if they ask for the overtime pay. Third, Joaquin and coalition members are focused on growing the movement. Knowing there’s power in numbers, their goal is to organize 10 percent of all domestic workers by 2017.
As a kid, Joaquin said she always wanted to know why. Why do people dig through the trash? Why was her immigrant father treated with disrespect? Why did her aunties and grandmother, who were also domestic workers, work so hard for such little pay?
So why does she organize? She says organizing is the best way to end injustice. You bring people together, show them they’re not alone and essentially give them a symbolic “machete” so they can secure justice and dignity for themselves and their communities.