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Nonprofit Urges Lawmakers to Protect Domestic Worker Rights

By Zobia Nayyar, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- After a 15-hour work day, Lenka Mendoza is tired but she prepares to do it all over again the next day.

 Mendoza spoke Tuesday at a Care in Action press conference in support of several General Assembly bills, dubbed the Virginia Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The nonprofit advocates for fairness and dignity for U.S. domestic workers, including 60,000 domestic workers in Virginia, according to director Alexsis Rodgers. The bills would increase the quality of life for a group of workers that includes house cleaners, cooks, waiters, nannies and caregivers who provide services in a private home.

“Virginia is actually dead last when it comes to workers’ rights across the country,” Rodgers said. “I would say we're not even on the list.”

Care in Action announced its support of Senate Bill 804, introduced by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. The bill guarantees domestic service workers to not be excluded from employee protection laws, laws regarding payment of wages and other laws regarding the workforce.

“It is time for us to cut the last vestiges of Jim Crow by expanding worker protections to the best workers,” McClellan said. “Laws that ensure minimum wage, safe workplace and protection and against discrimination currently are not extended to domestic workers due to minimum employee thresholds, as well as specific exclusions from wage compensation and workplace saving laws.”

Currently under the Virginia Minimum Wage Act, minimum wage laws do not apply to employers with less than four employees at any given time. McClellan’s bill removes this exemption. It also allows an employee to bring an action against their employer if they are in violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act, regardless of the number of people employed.

McClellan cited statistics from the Economic Policy Institute that 17% of domestic workers live in poverty. In Virginia, personal care aides make an average of $21,240 a year, while home health aides earn an average of $23,440 per year, according to the same data.

“While we have the opportunity to create new jobs, we need to ensure that those jobs come with protections that those workers so desperately need,” McClellan said.

Del.Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke, introduced House Bill 1730, which is similar to McClellan’s bill. She says it’s time to care for the people who have cared for others over the years.

Gooditis said she decided to introduce a bill focused on domestic workers because of a personal experience. Both her parents have dementia, and they are taken care of by two "amazing women," Gooditis said. She said domestic workers deserve minimum wage protections and other benefits. 

HB 1200, introduced by Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, also may help domestic workers. The bill says no employer can discriminate against workers based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, childbirth, age or pregnancy or related medical conditions.

Mendoza has been a domestic worker for the past 18 years. With a Spanish translator by her side, Mendoza said she lives without the benefits for which she now fights. 

“We are here to petition to our legislators to support the domestic labor laws,” she said.

She said domestic workers don’t get the luxury of having sick days or being able to go to doctor’s appointments, because they are there to care for others.

“Not only are we caring for your children, older people in your homes and preparing your food, we're also a pivotal point in education for those young people who will eventually grow to be very active members and contributors to our society,” Mendoza said. 

Both bills have yet to advance to the House or Senate floor.

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