Workers won what they are calling a “monumental change” Aug. 12, when Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed legislation into law that will ensure an estimated 35,000 domestic workers are paid the prevailing minimum wage, earn time off and gain other basic workplace rights.
The victory caps a five-year grassroots campaign to gain protections for house cleaners, home care aides, nannies and workers in similar fields, the Illinois Domestic Workers’ Coalition said. In the U.S., 95 percent of domestic workers are women and 46 percent are immigrants, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
“We won because we are organized. We won because we are united. We won because we are brave women who stood in front of politicians and said, ‘We will not be denied!’ From this day forward, domestic workers in Illinois will never have to endure the conditions I did,” Grace Padao, a home care worker in the state, said in a statement.
After years as an almost invisible workforce, the state’s domestic workers finally will enjoy rights that many other workers take for granted, advocates said in the wake of the Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights becoming law.
Specifically, advocates point to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which has excluded domestic workers since 1938.
The legislation, House Bill 1288, changes four Illinois laws – the Illinois Human Rights Act, the One Day of Rest in Seven Act, the Wages of Women and Minors Act and the Minimum Wage – to include home cleaners, home care aides, nannies and workers in similar fields, the Illinois Domestic Workers’ Coalition reported.
Domestic workers are a fast-growing part of the U.S. economy, in part, because of the waves of aging baby boomers. In fact, the U.S. will have more caregivers than teachers by 2020, according to Caring Across America. Although the coalition says the bill of rights will protect 35,000 domestic workers in the state, the number might be higher because the work is often informal.
Even though their ranks are growing, domestic workers generally have not enjoyed a rising stature, with higher pay and better benefits. In fact, too often, they don’t have what many consider basic worker rights.
In the U.S., for example, 23 percent of domestic workers earn less than their state’s minimum wage, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which supports the Illinois coalition. One study says that a quarter of all home health workers live in poverty.
Workers and grassroots advocates have successfully lobbied for legislative change in recent years, as more states approved better labor conditions. Illinois is the seventh state to approve protections for domestic workers, said Yomara Velez, states strategy organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
New York, she said in a statement, was the first to pass such legislation in 2010. The other states that have approved pay and workplace protections are: Massachusetts, California, Oregon, Hawaii and Connecticut.
Workers hailed the move by Illinois to update its laws to reflect the changing workforce.
“I’ve struggled to get by because of low wages, wage theft, and disrespect on the job,” Magdalena Zylinska, a home cleaner and board member of Arise Chicago, said in a statement. “We are a part of a growing industry in our state, and now the laws have caught up with that growth and with our hard work.”
Maria Esther Bolaños, another domestic worker, also campaigned for the change. “With the signing of this law, we have come out of the shadows. Domestic workers are finally visible in society, with equal protections under the law,” she said in a statement.
When the Illinois law takes effect on Jan. 1, 2017, Zylinska and other workers will be paid at least the state minimum wage of $8.25, enjoy protection against sexual harassment and earn one day of rest if she works for one employer a minimum of 20 hours a week, according to the Illinois Domestic Workers’ Coalition.
For years, domestic workers and their supporters have said the care that is provided “makes all other work possible.”
The signing of House Bill 1288 by Rauner marks a degree of legislative progress. He and state lawmakers are still haggling over a budget, which has affected stability for social service organizations and residents.
Zylinska, who met with lawmakers at the state Capitol in Springfield and asked for change, hopes other states will follow the lead of Illinois.
“I hope our victory will encourage other domestic workers to organize. I know that our success will lead to more victories, improving the working conditions and lives for domestic workers around the country,” she said.
Paul Nyhan is the senior writer for Equal Voice News. He has worked as a journalist at Bloomberg News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Congressional Quarterly. About the top image: Magdalena Zylinska, a domestic worker and grassroots advocate in Illinois, reflects at an Aug. 16 press conference on the five-year campaign that ended with the Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Photo courtesy of Illinois Domestic Workers’ Coalition.
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