California house cleaners, nannies, caregivers could get new workplace protections

Anabel Garcia of Santa Rosa has cleaned houses for 19 years. She’s been instructed to use harsh chemicals that impacted her vision and breathing. She’s been hired through insurance companies after California wildfires to clean houses covered in ash, while smoke hung heavy in the air. With no protective gear, she had trouble breathing and developed allergies. She’s cleaned homes where she was not allowed to use the bathroom. Now she’s cleaning homes during a pandemic, uncertain if any of her clients might be carrying the coronavirus.

As she supports two children, a father-in-law and a husband diagnosed with cancer, Garcia feels forced to accept whatever conditions her employers impose.

California occupational law does not protect her and other domestic workers. House cleaners, nannies, caregivers and others who work inside private homes are not covered by state requirements to provide safe working environments.

They could get new workplace protections from the state with SB1257, the Health and Safety for All Workers Act, which the Legislature passed last month. It’s awaiting a signature by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has not yet announced his stance, according to his office.

The act would place domestic workers under the purview of Cal/OSHA, the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, starting Jan. 1, 2022. Before then, it would require convening an advisory committee of both workers and employers to develop regulations. It would allow for state inspections of workplaces, and state investigations in response to complaints.

“Our members are not asking for anything special — just the same protections that the majority of California workers have under OSHA,” said Kimberly Alvarenga, director of the California Domestic Workers Coalition. “The heart and soul of the bill is to prevent hazards in the workplace and give dignity.”

While there was no formal opposition to the bill, which passed with bipartisan support, some Californians said they felt private homes should not be subject to the same types of workplace inspections as offices and factories.

Over 300,000 Californians work at 2 million private homes to clean, cook, tend gardens, and care for children, elders, and sick or disabled people. The indoor workers are largely low-income women, many of them immigrants, many undocumented. Often they are the primary breadwinners for their families.

Household workers are uniquely vulnerable to exploitation. They toil in solitude, behind closed doors. Cleaners and gardeners work with chemicals that can be dangerous. They’re susceptible to repetitive stress injuries. Health aides risk back strains and other conditions from having to lift people.

“Working in circumstances where you’re excluded from the law, you really suffer a lot,” said state Sen. María Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, the bill’s author. Her personal experience informs her knowledge: She grew up in a migrant farmworker family, toiling in the fields alongside her parents and siblings, with little protection from pesticides.

Cristina Ragas, a nanny, house cleaner and caregiver, hopes the governor will sign SB1257 into law.

After wildfires, learning that domestic workers were asked to clean without any protection from toxic ashes, “made me realize that they have really serious health and safety issues,” she said. “That made me think: We have to do something.”

Both farmworkers and domestic workers have historically been excluded from workplace protections because of racism.

“Going back to the days of slavery, laws automatically excluded those two sectors because they were African American originally,” Durazo said.

In the 1930s, Southern representatives fiercely resisted including the largely Black workforce of domestic workers and agricultural workers in New Deal workplace protections.

With the coronavirus pandemic and rampant wildfires, domestic workers’ problems are magnified. They work in close quarters, so they could be infected by sick clients. Many lost clients who simply stopped calling, so they are more desperate than ever for work. The wildfires increase hazardous conditions, such as smoky air and ash. The pandemic increased the use of bleach and other strong chemicals for disinfecting.

“Hazards are extremely common for domestic workers, many of which would be preventable if better protections were in place,” said Isaac Jabola-Carolus, a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who studies the issue. “Employers rarely provide safety training or (personal protective equipment), which is required in other industries.”

He surveyed 700 domestic workers in the San Francisco and Los Angeles metro areas for a recently released report called “Unprotected on the Job: How Exclusion From Safety and Health Laws Harms California Domestic Workers.”

More than three-quarters said they’d experienced at least one injury, illness or other harm at work in the past 12 months. About two-thirds fear retaliation if they refused to do a task that felt unsafe. A quarter said they’d contracted a contagious disease on the job. A quarter had experience verbal or physical aggression.

Cristina Ragas of Newark, who has worked as a nanny, house cleaner and private caregiver, said she’d often experienced abuse from her clients, but didn’t know what to do. She needed the income to send home to the Philippines to support her mother and her daughter.

“I’ve had some terrible experiences,” she said, including an employer who hit her, ones who withheld wages, and many who did not observe any health or safety protections, she said in Tagalog through an interpreter.

Because an underlying health condition makes her extra vulnerable to COVID-19, she’s cut back on working now. But if the new law gets enacted, “I’d feel more comfortable to work again, because there would be some sense of safety and more standards in place,” Ragas said.

Garcia, the Santa Rosa cleaner, had similar thoughts.

“Especially in this moment of crisis with COVID and wildfires, we hope we receive this protection,” she said, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter “We hope we can have dignified and happy work.”

Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @csaid

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