State Labor Chief Pledges Help For Domestic Workers

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New York State Labor Commissioner Patricia Smith came out in support of the proposed Domestic Worker Rights Bill now making its way through the state legislature at a forum last week on unregulated work in New York City.

The current incarnation of the bill, first introduced in 2004, requires private employers of domestic help such as nannies and housekeepers to pay wages starting at $14 an hour; provide health insurance; offer paid vacation, overtime and sick days; and provide severance packages. Backed by Domestic Workers United, an independent local organizing group, the bill (A628/S5235) represents an ambitious extension of a city law passed in 2003—also at their urging—which requires employment agencies to inform domestic workers of their legal rights.

“We need to sit down with legislators now to work out a bill we can get passed. I do think it’s possible to pass a bill that would be good for domestic workers,” said Smith, though she noted such legislation is a “long, long, long way from being passed.” Nonetheless, Smith told domestic workers at the panel – sponsored by the Labor Research Association and held at SEIU 1199’s headquarters on 42nd Street – that she’d be happy to work with them to pass a bill.

“We take what she said seriously, and we’re looking forward to really sitting down and really talking [it] through,” said Ai-Jen Poo, an organizer with DWU. Even once the bill is passed, said Poo, “I think we have an added challenge…because it’s so challenging to enforce laws in people’s private homes.”

On the political front, however, Poo said “there hasn’t been any active opposition” to the proposed legislation, either from legislators or political groups.

Indeed, the difficulties of enforcing labor laws took a central role at the forum, which highlighted a recent Brennan Center report on unregulated work in the city. That report’s author, Annette Bernhardt, identified enforcement as the top challenge to ensuring labor regulations were followed. Indeed, at the federal level, the number of labor investigators dropped by 14 percent between 1975 and 2004, even as the number of workplaces covered by labor law has more than doubled.

Smith said that trend, at least, was being reversed here, noting that the agency recently hired 10 new labor standards investigators to verify labor violation complaints. The agency has also moved to abandon the traditional practice of addressing complaints on a first-come, first-served basis, hiring a director of strategic enforcement to help determine which cases required the most immediate attention.

The labor department is also expanding its outreach efforts to communities where low-wage workers live by using a “Labor on Wheels” van, which visits immigrant neighborhoods on nights and weekends. Van staff provide in-person labor advice in Spanish, Chinese and Korean, and proffer written materials on labor rights in 10 languages, with more on the way. Thus far, visits have been concentrated in immigrant neighborhoods such as Richmond Hill, Queens, and Mamaroneck in Westchester, just north of the Bronx.

One area they expect to focus on, said Smith, was employee misclassification, wherein employers typically call an employee an “independent contractor” to avoid paying taxes and benefits. Not only is this practice common for lower-wage workers, she added, but it’s a “growing problem with middle-class workers” as well; earlier this year, Gov. Spitzer signed an executive order establishing a task force to battle the problem.

– Tracie McMillan

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