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Domestic workers still don’t have safety protections on the job

Meghan McCarty Carino Oct 5, 2020
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Cleaning staff disinfect the lectern in the White House pressroom in April. The COVID-19 outbreak at the White House has highlighted the importance of workplace safety laws. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Domestic workers still don’t have safety protections on the job

Meghan McCarty Carino Oct 5, 2020
Heard on:
Cleaning staff disinfect the lectern in the White House pressroom in April. The COVID-19 outbreak at the White House has highlighted the importance of workplace safety laws. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images
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The White House COVID-19 outbreak is a high-profile demonstration of the risk of workplace exposure to the disease, highlighting the importance of the protections provided to workers under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. But notably left out under that federal law are domestic workers, and a California bill that sought to finally extend protections to them was vetoed by the governor last week.

The bill would have laid out new safety regulations for hundreds of thousands of house cleaners, nannies and elder care workers. After Gov. Gavin Newsom’s veto, dozens of domestic workers gathered in front of a state building in Los Angeles on Thursday to protest the decision.

The California Domestic Workers Coalition has long fought to gain protections for people exposed to harsh cleaning chemicals, hazardous wildfire debris or who suffer injury from repetitive physical tasks. Maegan Ortiz, who helps organize domestic workers, said the pandemic has exacerbated the dangers.

“We’ve heard a number of cases, unfortunately, of women exposed to COVID in the homes that they clean and bringing it back home to their families,” she said.

Domestic workers are overwhelmingly women, the majority women of color. They’re paid lower than average wages and most get no sick time, unemployment, health insurance or the right to organize, said Julia Wolfe with the Economic Policy Institute.

“It’s really difficult to think of a more vulnerable workforce,” she said.

In his veto statement, Newsom said requiring private households to take on employer obligations for safety would be onerous and that enforcement would be impossible.

But Debbie Berkowitz with the National Employment Law Project said more can be done.

“We need to really figure out a way to get information to household employers on some of the key and critical hazards these workers face,” she said, noting standardized training materials or guidelines on protective equipment would go a long way.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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