Oregon Domestic Workers’ Bill Fails, Highlighting Importance of Workers’ Voices

Part of the problem in Oregon was that the push for domestic workers' legislation did not include enough grassroots mobilization by the state’s estimated 10,000 domestic workers who are currently excluded from overtime and other protections.

Rep. Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis), the bill's chief sponsor. Horsepowerstudios / YouTube

Last week, after receiving Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s signature, Hawaii became the second state in the nation to enact a domestic workers’ bill of rights, following New York’s 2010 law. But the excitement among domestic workers’ advocates over Hawaii’s new law was tempered when, in the same week, Oregon’s domestic workers’ legislation failed.

Domestic workers, who in the United States are primarily immigrant women who work as nannies, caregivers, and housekeepers, are surging ahead in their fight for inclusion in basic labor protections. But Oregon’s vote reveals how much further there is yet to go to recognize these workers as participants in the U.S. economy. It also reveals how crucial the voices of actual domestic workers are in achieving legislative victories.

The Oregon bill was narrower in scope than Hawaii’s and New York’s. HB 2672, Oregon’s Domestic Workers’ Protection Act, would have chiefly covered nannies in the state, while New York’s and Hawaii’s laws includes wage, overtime, and other protections for nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for the elderly and disabled.

Yet Oregon’s bill still fueled debate in the state legislation. The state house passed HB 2672 in May, but the Oregon senate voted it down, with lawmakers raising objections that hearkened back to the historic exclusion of domestic workers from any labor protections. As the bill’s chief sponsor, state Rep. Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis), told Rewire via email, “The objections seem to be centered around whether these workers should have overtime, whether it is appropriate to have legal protections for eight hours of rest time in each 24-hour period, and whether it is appropriate for a domestic worker to have one unpaid day of rest each week. There are also objections to providing a written statement of wages, pay days, and working hours and to keeping records about hours worked and wages paid.”

These are protections that most workers in the economy receive, yet legislators questioned why domestic workers deserve them too. Even in the Oregon house, the vote over the bill was close and not without opposition. “Some legislators raised concerns about whether they’d have to still pay their nanny if she comes to Disneyland to care for the children and she is given Mickey Mouse ears,” said Rep. Gelser.

The answer is that, yes, of course—just as when any worker travels for her job, the domestic worker should be paid for her time, including when her job takes her to Disneyland.

Part of the problem in Oregon was that the effort was largely undertaken by Rep. Gelser and her allies in the legislature, and did not include enough grassroots mobilization by the state’s estimated 10,000 domestic workers, who are currently excluded from overtime and other protections. As legal scholar Reva Siegel has noted, social movements are subject to the “public value condition,” which means that social movements have to frame their issues in keeping with the public’s shared commitments, and express their convictions in the language of public value. To do this, it seems, grassroots storytelling is required. New York domestic workers accomplished their legislative victory in 2010 by pounding the pavement for a decade, telling their stories and building deep connections with employers and other workers’ groups.

“I do think grassroots support can make a big difference,” said Rep. Gelser . “But we had some other big, important, and competing issues this year that had been in the works longer, and our grassroots advocates appropriately focused their attention and energy there.”

Specifically, Oregon progressive activists invested their energy this year in passing critical legislation that could affect the families of some domestic workers, including tuition equity for undocumented students that graduate from Oregon high schools as well as driver’s licenses for undocumented people living in Oregon. Progressive groups also worked on passing paid sick leave legislation and automatic voter registration through the Department of Motor Vehicles. “As you can imagine, there is a lot of overlap between the advocates for all of these bills, considering they all have implications for racial equity, civil rights, and economic justice,” Rep. Gelser noted.

Similarly, some believe California’s domestic workers’ legislation failed in 2012 because of competing progressive causes. Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown may have vetoed the legislation because he needed to focus his political capital on passing tough legislation to increase education revenue for the state.

But the heightened activity in state legislatures throughout the country this year shows that the domestic workers’ movement is gaining traction. California, Massachusetts, and Illinois all still have domestic workers’ legislation pending. Rep. Gelser was inspired to act on this issue in Oregon after attending a symposium on the trafficking of women that was focused on labor in 2012. She has now made passing domestic workers’ labor protections her top legislative priority.

“I brought this bill late and knew it was a challenge given the many priorities that we had, and I was humbled that so many advocates were able to make time to work on this bill and to visit legislators to work on it,” Gelser said. “I anticipate that now that we’ve raised the issue, we will be able to build even more energy behind it in coming sessions.”