Tips for employers of domestic workers

By Kristen Hannum| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Social Justice
Before hiring a worker in your home, ask the following questions to make sure you’re taking care of your caretaker.

In September 2013, the Obama administration announced that it would be extending minimum wage and overtime protections to home health care workers. Employers don’t need to wait for January 1, 2015, however, to institute the new Department of Labor standards for a domestic worker that they employ. Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, urges employers adopt these new standards now.

Bobo recommends that all employers use a contract that spells out the worker’s rights and benefits. Sample contracts are available at the Hand in Hand website and at La Colectiva’s website. Those sites offer handbooks for employers, outlining how to be a responsible employer: by providing fair wages, adequate benefits and provisions, and clear and open communication.

Fair wages are different depending on the cost of living in various areas of the country, but they are basically a living wage. Questions to consider include: Have you discussed with the worker you employ the option of being paid on the books? “I would prefer to pay above board, pay into Social Security for an employee,” says Kathy Barry, a California-based employer. “[My current housekeeper’s] predecessor was extremely unhappy with me for doing that.” Many domestic workers don’t want to be paid on the books, and for those who are from other countries and who lack documentation, that’s understandable. But domestic workers who are citizens often hurt their long-term well-being by working off the books.

Questions to consider regarding adequate benefits and provisions include, for employers of house cleaners: Do you provide protective gear and offer the option of nontoxic supplies? For employers of full-time help, questions include: Do you provide a mutually agreed upon number of paid sick and/or personal days?

Clear and open communication is crucial to being a good boss, thus the need for a written contract or agreement that spells out obligations and responsibilities both for the employer and the employee. It should not include vague duties about miscellaneous chores that might come up. If the employee is expected to walk the dog, it should say so. If an employee offers to walk the dog once, but it’s not in her contract, both sides can refer back to the contract and feel comfortable knowing that the outing was just for that one instance. The job contract should be referred back to and kept up-to-date.

Hand in Hand’s “One Step Up” campaign asks employers to take one step up, whatever an employer’s practices are at present: “By professionalizing these relationships, we show value for the work and help bring dignity and respect to our homes, families, and the domestic workers whom we employ.”

That’s because, ironically, part of why domestic workers are exploited is because employers want to think of domestic workers as part of the family.  “A lot of exploitation isn’t nastiness, it’s just not thinking of the person as a paid employee,” says Tony Robinson, a professor at the University of Colorado, Denver.

As South African domestic Myrlie Witbooi put it at the 2013 AFL-CIO convention: “If I’m part of your family you need to let me sit at your table while you get up and you wash the dishes.”

This is a web-only sidebar that accompanies, "Let's get organized: Domestic workers fight for their rights," which appeared in the January 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 1, pages 17-21).