Lawmakers in a suburban Washington, D.C. county said this week that domestic workers and their employers should be required to sign contracts to ensure the workers receive fair wages, overtime and other protections against abuse.
Two members of the Montgomery County Council proposed the legislation, which they say is the first of its kind in the nation. It would allow workers who spend at least 20 hours a week as housekeepers, nannies or adult care attendants to negotiate their work conditions and pay.
The lawmakers said a written contract would offer protection for a group of workers, most of them immigrant women, who are vulnerable to abuse and mistreatment from employers because they don’t have clear agreements outlining their employment terms.
“All our constituents deserve basic protections, basic rights,” said Council member George Leventhal, a Democrat.
A 2006 study conducted for the county by George Washington University researchers found that many domestic workers in Montgomery, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, worked more than 40 hours a week without overtime pay, health insurance or vacation and sick leave.
To address similar work conditions, jurisdictions such as New York have considered a “bill of rights” for domestic workers that usually includes a standard minimum wage. In Montgomery, immigrant advocates have pushed for a minimum wage of $10.50 per hour, higher than the Maryland’s $6.15 minimum hourly rate.
Domestic workers are already covered by the state’s minimum wage and overtime laws, according to the bill sponsors, but many are unaware of those regulations. The new law would not set specific wage requirements.
Contracts would specify issues such as duties, time off, pay and severance for domestic workers. Those who live in their employers’ homes would have to be provided a secure place to sleep with access to a bathroom and kitchen. A model contract would be available from the county for employers to use.
County officials did not have a specific figure on the number of workers who would be affected by the law. The 2006 George Washington study surveyed 286 workers in the county, though immigrant groups say the total is much higher.
Other county lawmakers said the proposal could cause problems for employers and the domestic workers, especially if they are illegal immigrants.
An employment contract with an illegal domestic worker is not legally binding, said Duchy Trachtenberg, a Democrat on the county council. It would force illegal workers to either admit to their immigration status or use false identification, such as a stolen Social Security number. That could expose them to prosecution and possible deportation, she said.
“The bill potentially provides false promises to domestic workers,” said Trachtenberg, who favors greater education for domestic workers on their existing labor rights.
But Hermina Servat, of the immigrant advocacy group Casa de Maryland, said the law would afford domestic workers some basic protections against abusive employers.
“Dignified treatment is what we need,” she said in Spanish through a translator.
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