Monday, July 14, 2008

Are Domestic Workers Employees or “Help?”

Montgomery County’s domestic workers protection bill, introduced way back in January, is finally coming up for a vote tomorrow. At last we will learn its fate.

The bill, co-sponsored by Council Members George Leventhal and Marc Elrich, would provide domestic workers with the right to negotiate a binding contract with their employers. It was prompted by a 2006 study by George Washington University documenting extensive abuses in working conditions for domestic workers. While the bill would make domestic worker employment contracts enforceable by the County’s Office of Consumer Protection, it does not prescribe wage or benefit levels. Those items are subject to negotiation between the worker and the employer.

In a lengthy post in February, I defended the bill against critics who alleged that illegal immigrants employed as domestic workers could not be covered by contracts and faced risk of deportation. But the question really is more basic: are these workers employees or “members of the family?” If the latter category applies, “members of the family” are often expected to perform “chores” without compensation. The refusal to recognize these workers as bona fide employees is the source of many derivative abuses such as failing to pay overtime or respect U.S. labor laws as documented in the 2006 study.

The bill has a decent chance of passage. It has two co-sponsors. Council Members Valerie Ervin and Duchy Trachtenberg are believed to support it. And Council Member Don Praisner voted in its favor in a meeting of the council’s Public Safety Committee (which has jurisdiction over the Office of Consumer Protection). But the bill has opponents and nothing is certain.

So will the County Council see domestic workers as employees or “help?” We’ll find out tomorrow.