By Andrea Hayley
NEW YORK—Amid the tremendous emotion and heartfelt celebration of over 200 people at Harlem’s Dwyer Cultural Center Tuesday, Gov. Paterson signed the nation’s first Bill of Rights for domestic workers.
The law corrects what the governor calls an historic injustice: when workers first gained the right to a minimum wage, among other basic rights, in 1937, farm and domestic workers were exempted because Southern Democrats who were needed to pass the law disagreed with paying minimum wage to the "hired help."
“I wonder if President Roosevelt ever dreamed that it would take until 2010, 75 years until after he died, for there to be action taken by even one state on this issue,” said Gov. Paterson.
There are 200,000 nannies, maids, and elderly caregivers in New York, who, until now, have worked in American homes while receiving no legal protection.
The workers, most of whom are women of color, have been subject to unregulated wages, long hours without overtime, no right to holidays, benefits, or legal protection against harassment, and firing without notification or severance, even after long years of service.
“We have totally disrespected them until today,” said the governor.
The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, sponsored by Sen. Diane J. Savino (D-N.Y.), gives recognition to domestic workers under the law, and includes basic labor regulations such as a right to minimum wage, days off for rest, paid days off, and protection from discrimination. A Department of Labor Task Force will begin to look into the possibility of collective bargaining.
“We owe this great moment to the thousands of domestic workers who sacrificed their time, their wages, their energy, attending meetings, vigils, marching, telling their stories many times over, so that this workforce could have a new beginning,” says Priscilla González, director of the Domestic Workers United, the group that lobbied the government to enact the changes.
“It is an example of what can happen when people come together with patience, determination, and love, and see the power of others to be capable of more,” she added.
The domestic workers bill passed with democratic majority support and without any organized opposition, says González.
“There hasn’t been anybody to come out in an organized way to say this is not what should happen,” she said.