Josefa Gonzalez said she worked nearly 70 hours a week helping to cook, clean and care for four elderly people in a private home. She earned $342 a week, about $5 an hour, she said, with no overtime pay, breaks or paid sick days.
When her boss, Slavko Beck, told her she also would help care for his ill mother, Gonzalez said, she asked for a raise. That, she said, is when Beck fired her.
She fought back and won more than $70,000 in back wages, with interest, in a judgment from the state labor commissioner’s office.
“It’s what I worked for,” said Gonzalez, 44, who emigrated from El Salvador and worked as an undocumented immigrant for many years before becoming a U.S. citizen. “I couldn’t keep my mouth shut anymore.”
Nannies, housecleaners and caretakers work in a largely unregulated industry, usually without contracts, timecards or any other detailed records. There are pluses for both sides: Employers can generally count on employees’ flexibility and willingness to work cheaply, and employees readily find work even if they don’t have immigration documents. Frequently, neither side pays taxes.
But the deal can go sour. Because the arrangements are unofficial, labor violations are common, according to employees, their advocates and academics. Workers have few protections and often are hard-pressed to prove they were wronged.
A small but growing number of workers—most of them women—are trying to change that. They and their advocates are confronting employers, forming collectives and pushing for legislation to guarantee more rights. They also are filing wage claims with the labor commissioner’s office, part of the state Department of Industrial Relations, which is responsible for enforcing labor laws.
Advocates in California have been closely watching what happened in New York, where the City Council passed a law in 2003 guaranteeing more rights for domestic workers, including a requirement that employers sign contracts on wages and benefits.
The fact that many undocumented workers are willing to bring their cases to the attention of state officials “shows that they have no fear of our government enforcing our immigration laws,” said Rick Oltman, Western field director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
“No workers should be cheated of their wages,” he said. “But the workers who are here should be legal workers.”
He said that if the government is worried about unscrupulous bosses, it should crack down on the ones who hire undocumented workers. Also, he said, some workers are bilking their bosses and the system.
Domestic workers, regardless of their immigration status, are entitled under the law to earn minimum wage—$6.75 an hour—and overtime pay. They also have the right to receive rest and meal breaks.
Juana Nicolas’ job is to educate domestic workers on those rights. Every week, Nicolas, who works at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, meets with household workers, encouraging them to keep records of their hours and wages and to attend free legal clinics if problems arise.