When the Home Is a Workplace

When the Home Is a Workplace

In California, new legislation would expand the rules of the Occupational Health and Safety Act to cover all workers—if domestic workers and their allies have their way.

Home healthcare aide Maria Colville on her way to a client's home (Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
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On March 19 California Governor Gavin Newsom led the nation in issuing a statewide stay-at-home order to combat the spread of COVID-19. Among those deemed vital were home health aides and “workers who provide support to vulnerable populations to ensure their health and well-being including family care providers.” This often-invisible workforce of nannies, house cleaners, and personal care attendants not only sanitizes dwellings, but also cleans and nourishes the families within—crucial work at the center of combating the pandemic. However, care and related domestic workers, who labor in over 2 million households statewide, lack proper equipment for their own health and safety and are excluded from the state’s health and safety law. This could finally change with the introduction of new legislation, SB 1257, which would expand the rules of the Occupational Health and Safety Act to cover all workers—especially if domestic workers and their allies, who have just launched a campaign for its passage, have their way.

It’s long been thought that, as one Santa Monica businessman put it back in 1974, “Being against health and safety is like being against motherhood and apple pie.” He was wrong. The legislators who passed the nation’s Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) in 1971, and its California counterpart in 1973, barred from workplace protections those who care for children, elders, and people with disabilities. Residential employers of anyone who performed “ordinary domestic household tasks” were left off the hook. Thus, nearly a half century later–during a moment of wildfires, pandemics, and floods—millions of household workers remain excluded from the occupational health and safety coverage that protects the rest of us.

Legislators justified the exclusions by arguing that the home should be considered a familial space rather than a regular workplace. As one North Dakota Congressman put it in a 1972 OSHA hearing: “If a farmer has a hired man, that man lives in the farmer’s home, eats at a family table, he is kind of like an uncle, but then the family becomes part of the act.” Farms that were “family operations” therefore avoided government health and safety inspections. Casting workers as “one of the family” meant employers were not accountable for protecting them from workplace hazards.

Most domestic and care workers are not kin. They rarely join employers over dinner or share the same accommodations. They are supporting families that reside elsewhere. Due to the fact that what they do for a wage seems similar to the activities of wives and mothers, it has been easy to dismiss their labor as not real work. Moreover, the association of household work with servitude and slavery further devalued its worth, especially when African American and immigrant women continue to dominate the occupation.

Domestic and care workers do precisely what their name implies: they care, ensuring that our homes and loved ones are safe and healthy. The line between care and domestic work is fluid; the same person can move between homes, hospitals, long-term care facilities, and other institutions, undertaking cooking, cleaning, and laundry. In all these spaces, they help others to wash, dress, eat, and walk. They risk exposure to whatever pathogens lurk in a home, whether within persons, on surfaces, or in the air. The fact that they work from homes is exactly what complicates their standing in the law; enforcement of labor standards has long stopped at its threshold.

The most salient exception to this tradition under Cal/OSHA, the Aerosol Transmissible Disease Standard, is particularly relevant during a pandemic. Recognizing the danger of close contact with the sick, it extends OSHA protections to home healthcare workers and those who labor at health facilities, prisons, and homeless shelters. This regulation stands in contradiction to the general OSHA law that exempts work in the home, but in keeping with the state’s distinction between clinical or medicalized home care and in-home supportive services, it excludes most home aides, personal attendants, and general household workers.

This is where the Aerosol Transmissible Disease Standard begins to fall short. As such, these workers cannot benefit from its detailed rules for employers, which include the provision of personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves and a mandate to provide testing and post procedures. Hospitals, first-responders, jails, and some nursing homes must undertake even more stringent precautions and offer comprehensive treatment plans. Existing enforcement mechanisms assume that the workplaces in question are factories, offices, or hospitals. Investigations are made only after a complaint. It is unrealistic to expect an individual care worker, even if backed by a union, to report their employer, who is usually their client or patient as well as the source of their income.

During the coronavirus pandemic, those whose workplaces are homes are in a double bind. Many employers fear contagion from those who by necessity move from home to home. Some fire or lay off their carers, transforming a health crisis for these individuals into an economic one as well. Others ask caregivers to shelter in place with them rather than return to their own homes.

Much has changed for the good since the 1970s when OSHA was established. Domestic workers have gained a voice and power through their associations and unions, winning state laws, national rules, and international conventions. Now, Senator María Elena Durazo (District 24), a long-time labor and immigrant rights leader, has introduced SB 1257 to remove the exclusion of domestic workers from Cal/OSHA. Co-sponsors include the California Domestic Worker Coalition, the California Employment Lawyers Association, Equal Rights Advocates, and Worksafe. The bill extends worker protections to domestic workers while recognizing the fundamental challenge of the residence workplace: the system relies on employer willingness to ameliorate conditions. After notification of a complaint, an employer must investigate the allegation, correct any hazard, report the correction, and give the household employee copies of all correspondence with Cal/OSHA—without retaliating against the worker. Lacking an adequate response, an inspector then may request permission to enter the home and, if denied, obtain a court order to proceed. This process assumes a less antagonistic employment relationship, mediated by intimacy and trust. It assumes that employers want to do the right thing but need guidance. In short, this bill is just the beginning of what is needed, but it is necessary, as exclusion from Cal/OSHA protections merely exacerbates the second-class status of this workforce.

The California Domestic Worker Coalition is planning extensive virtual lobbying by workers, domestic and care work employers, and supporters to drum up enthusiasm for the bill. The necessity for redress comes from the same impulse that has led to a shortening of the legislative session, which will not convene again until early May at the earliest: the need for protection during an unprecedented health crisis. However, the change would be permanent. It is too early to know if the bill will pass, but if successful, domestic workers and their organizations would win a tool not only to educate employers but also to initiate complaints. Like voluntary organizations and unions in the past, they will facilitate the enforcement of the law, aiding OSHA, an understaffed government agency at the best of times, to do its work.

For many, the home is a workplace—and a uniquely vulnerable one, at that. In his response to the coronavirus, Governor Newsom has recognized the essential role of these household workers. At a time when we are all in this together, placing them under Cal/OSHA would show that we care for those who care for us.


Eileen Boris is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author with Jennifer Klein of Caring for America: Home Health Workers in the Shadow of the Welfare State.


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