People@Work: Domestic Workers Finally Get Some Rights

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Just in time for Labor Day, domestic workers in New York state got a gift of sorts -- a workers' bill of rights, which Gov. David Paterson signed into law last week. The measure guarantees nannies, housekeepers and care providers to the elderly are paid overtime, get time off and are protected against sexual harassment.

Paterson, who signed the bill in Manhattan where the bulk of the state's domestic workers are employed, said the legislation has been long sought by advocates to end abuses that are rife within the industry.

The laundry list of violations aren't limited to mere pay and benefits. Domestic workers, many of whom are female immigrants, are too frequently subject to verbal and physical abuse. The new law gives them some recourse.

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Late last month, backers of the bill gathered at the Capitol in Albany to watch as lawmakers passed the measure. Some workers cried and hugged upon learning the bill would become law.

"The day is finally here," said Barbara Young, a Manhattan nanny who spoke on behalf of Domestic Workers United, an organization of nannies, housekeepers and care providers for the elderly, the Associated Press reported. Those who take care of children and other family members deserve respect and dignity, Young said. "When I think about all the domestic workers who worked without recognition for so many years, I am so proud of what we accomplished."

Chiefly, the bill assures that 200,000 domestic workers in New York City and some 70,000 more statewide are paid overtime for working more than 40 hours a week -- 44 hours if the provider lives in-house. It also enforces the state's minimum wage laws, meaning domestic workers can no longer be paid less than $7.25 an hour.

The law, which takes effect Nov. 30, also requires workers be given one day off a week and three paid vacation days after a year's employment. They will also be entitled to temporary disability benefits and unemployment benefits.

As importantly, the new law also subjects employers to state law for complaints of unwelcome sexual advances and abuse. "It will mean that we will have protection, that the work we do will be recognized," said former nanny Patricia Francois, 51, The New York Times reported. Francois left her job 18 months ago because her employer beat her, she said.

The bill is the first of its type in the nation, and may prompt other states to pass similar laws to protect those who provide care to family members. State Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright, a sponsor of the bill, perhaps said it best. "The final outcome is about parity, equity, dignity and justice for 200,000 people that would not have necessarily gotten it."

It's fitting that the measure passed just in time for the Labor Day holiday, when those who fought for workplace justice, including many who died, are honored. Their efforts, as well as those of New York's domestic workers, shouldn't only be recognized but celebrated, too.
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