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.
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