A Bill of Rights for Housecleaners

Chicago — For eight years, I worked as a housecleaner for a millionaire who lived in the Gold Coast neighborhood of Chicago. I took the bus across town three times a week, often to work in an empty house because my employer was frequently away, traveling for business.

That also meant I got paid only when I saw him — in lump sums, often months apart. At first, I didn’t mind this setup, but soon, months would pass. By the end of 2008, my employer owed me $10,000 — and had stopped returning my calls.

I was frantic. It wasn’t just that these were wages for weeks and weeks of work I’d already done, but I had bills to pay and my son’s tuition at a special high school.

I went over to my employer’s place one day, hoping to confront him, and finally found him home. I asked when I’d get paid what I was owed. He didn’t answer, but instead offered a one-off payment of $1,000 to settle the debt. When I refused that, he told me to leave and, obviously assuming I was undocumented, threatened to have me deported. (In fact, I had legal status as a permanent resident on grounds of political asylum.)

. . . .

In any regular workplace, this type of behavior wouldn’t be tolerated. But for domestic workers like me, who do their jobs in the privacy of people’s homes, there isn’t much we can do. If we say something, we get fired. . . .

I began to speak out about my case. The more I did, the more I met other domestic workers who told me their stories; many had suffered worse mistreatment than I had. Taking inspiration from efforts in other states like California and New York to pass laws that protect the rights of domestic workers, we began campaigning for similar legislation in Illinois.

It took awhile, but we won. In August, Illinois became the seventh state to adopt a law to protect our rights, joining Massachusetts, California, New York, Oregon, Hawaii and Connecticut.

Under theDomestic Workers Bill of Rights, more than 35,000 housecleaners, nannies and home care workers in Illinois are fully covered by labor and human rights laws for the first time in the state’s history. Whether you’re paid in cash, or are undocumented, as a domestic worker you are now guaranteed a state minimum wage, protection from discrimination and sexual harassment, a meal break in every shift and a day of rest each week.

Read the full piece in New York Times Opinion Section