Domestics: We are here. We are organizing. We have something.

Two years after Montgomery County, Md.,’s domestic workers law went into effect, just one worker has made a complaint under the law. Yet domestic worker organizers have a spring in their step, and that feeling took hold even before the first complaint was filed in August: They have hope.

The law requires employers of domestic workers who work more than 20 hours a week to negotiate contracts with their employees or to have them sign a disclosure form saying they refused a contract. The written contract must spell out work schedule, duties, salary, overtime, payment schedule, time off, living conditions, length of the contract, and termination details.

A domestic workers committee from advocacy organization Casa de Maryland started the lobbying efforts in 2005 for a comprehensive bill of rights. The law that passed July 15, 2008, and went into effect in January 2009 is a limited version of what was proposed. But it’s a starting point.

“We don’t have everything we asked for, but we have something,” said domestic worker Martha Alvarado. “We have to continue working for the other things we wanted. Now when we do outreach we tell them that we have that and you don’t have to be afraid or anything.”

Alvarado is a live-out domestic worker in Montgomery County. She has been active with Casa de Maryland for six years, and is a leader on its Committee of Women Seeking Justice. She said the committee does outreach at metro stations and acknowledged that many domestic workers they encounter do not know about the law.

The lack of outreach seems to be one of the biggest obstacles to the law having further reach. Montgomery County Councilman George Leventhal, one of the council members who sponsored the law, said he views the law as a major accomplishment. However, he said the government’s limited budget means little has been done by way of outreach.

“I think sadly probably most people covered by the law are not aware of it,” Leventhal said.

Members of the Committee of Women Seeking Justice and other Casa de Maryland officials have tried to fill in the gap, but ultimately Casa is short-staffed and has more egregious human rights violations that demand attention, said Ashwini Jaisingh, domestic worker organizer. In addition, domestic workers are a historically isolated population because their workplace – and sometimes where they live – is their employer’s home.

However, Jaisingh said that based on the number of calls Casa has received and what she has heard from domestic workers, the law seems to have generated an awareness of domestic workers’ issues in general. Domestic workers “feel change is possible,” she said.

In addition, Montgomery County’s domestic workers had a significant role in the law’s enactment, so they feel a sense of ownership in the movement and confidence in their power to bring about change, Jaisingh said.

The first person to file a complaint under the Montgomery County law was domestic worker Janet Gonzalez of Washington, D.C. Her attorney filed the complaint in August against her former employers alleging that they did not provide her with a contract. Gonzalez’s complaint was in conjunction with a federal lawsuit that accuses her employers, Belinda and James Caron of Dickerson, Md., of not paying her wages for more than four months and includes a trafficking claim for indentured servitude.

The complaint with the county is on hold while Gonzalez’s trial proceeds through federal court, set to start this spring, said attorney Nathaniel Norton of the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau.

Norton said he thinks the law is a great tool although it was a “bit peripheral in Janet’s case.” Gonzalez called a trafficking hotline after she saw a program on TV and was then linked to Casa de Maryland.  Her decision to come forward led three other domestic workers who had previously been employed by the same family to speak out. They are now a part of Gonzalez’s lawsuit.

Norton said the Montgomery County law “certainly didn’t hurt our case. I can see it going forward that it will help our case given that employers are required to do certain things under the code and they haven’t done them, so that helps our argument.”

Although it is not known precisely how many domestic workers there are in Montgomery County, a county-commissioned 2006 survey of 286 domestic workers showed that they were uniformly deprived of health benefits, retirement provisions, and standard breaks and holidays.

Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection Investigator Lorena Bailey, whose office puts out a model contract for domestic workers and handles complaints, said most of the complaints she hears from domestic workers are beyond the scope of the law. Bailey said the law’s impact has been in raising awareness; “from an enforcement perspective, the numbers aren’t there.”

“The fact that we’ve just had one complaint is a testament to the vulnerability of the workers. Everyone is worried about job security. It’s difficult for an employee to file a complaint about not having a contract when they’re worried about not having a job,” she said.

For Alvarado, her hope has risen to a dream. She wants the Montgomery County Council to create a shelter for domestic workers. The shelter would provide them a temporary place to live if they need to leave their work quickly and a place to stay while they look for new jobs.

But until she can persuade the council members for a shelter, Alvarado will continue her message of outreach.

“We are here. We are organizing. We have something,” she said.


(Photo Credit: Yana Paskova/ The New York Times)

About Elizabeth Owens

Liz Owens is a feminist, a native Iowan, a former journalist and a passionate progressive advocate. She currently serves as the communications director at the Bell Policy Center in Denver, Colorado. Before coming to the Bell, Liz led strategic communications for the American Association of University Women's national policy shop in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, she worked at The Des Moines Register as a reporter and editor