BOSTON, Mass. (SHNS)–Nearly eight years after passage of a law granting new rights to domestic workers, the law’s effectiveness has been hampered by a lack of awareness among employees and employers and insufficient enforcement resources, a new report concluded.
Researchers who surveyed more than 200 housekeepers, cleaners, nannies, caretakers, cooks and others who fall under the umbrella of “domestic worker” found most had little to no awareness of the protections they are guaranteed under the 2014 law, while the families that employ them were similarly out of the loop on the requirements they face.
The report published Thursday from the Boston College Law School Civil Rights Clinic and the Brazilian Worker Center stopped short of outright criticizing the attorney general’s office, which is the primary agency responsible for enforcing the law and educating both employers and employees about its provisions, or other agencies that might play a role in maximizing the law’s success.
Instead, authors highlighted the glaring gaps that persist years after its passage and outlined a series of recommended steps they hope will “push all of us to work harder to fulfill the promise” of the legislation.
“Our survey results highlighted two major obstacles hindering the bill’s efficacy, the first being a lack of knowledge about the bill and how to report a violation and the second being limited resources to properly enforce it,” said Lloyd Hancock, a Boston College law student who co-authored the report. “Additionally, the surveys indicated many instances of non-compliance with the bill, which is most likely attributable to the general lack of knowledge.”
Gov. Deval Patrick signed the bill into law in June 2014, and its measures took effect on April 1, 2015.
Many households that hire domestic workers are higher earners. More than one-third of employers surveyed, 37 percent, reported annual household incomes of $250,000 or more. The workers themselves landed much lower on the income ladder. More than eight in 10 who participated in the survey said they earned less than $40,000 per year, and 47 percent earned less than $30,000 per year.
Sen. Lydia Edwards, who in 2014 helped advocate for the legislation’s passage when she worked with the Massachusetts Coalition for Domestic Workers, recalled that at the time “there were real gaps in [the] understanding of what is care work, the value of it and that people who are doing it should even be paid.”
“We found that they were being discriminated against, we didn’t have infrastructure set up in our laws, and honestly, a lot of people just didn’t know what they didn’t know — a lot of employers simply didn’t see them as workers, as employees, and treated them like they’re a part of the family,” Edwards said during a virtual event Thursday to release the report.
The law formalized a range of protections and labor rights for individuals paid to perform “work of a domestic nature within a household,” including overtime pay, breaks and time off. Anyone who works 16 hours or more per week must be provided with a written agreement, in a language they can understand, outlining their rate of pay, responsibilities, breaks and off days and other key points. Under the law, employers must also provide workers with a notice of the rights available to them and retain payroll records for at least three years.
To analyze how much impact the law has had so far, researchers conducted surveys with 205 domestic workers and 124 employers as well as several worker centers and workers’ rights groups across Massachusetts. They also held interviews with representatives from the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Boston Area South Region office.
Their findings painted a picture of a law that remains largely unheard of in the industry it aimed to regulate. More than three-quarters of Massachusetts workers surveyed had little to no understanding about the protections guaranteed to them under the 2014 law, with 38.6 percent describing themselves as having “no knowledge” of the law and 38 percent saying they are “slightly familiar” with it.
Roughly the same trend was in place among Bay Staters who employ domestic workers in their homes, 47 percent of whom said they had “no knowledge” of the law and 31 percent of whom are “slightly familiar.”
The biggest factor in making workers aware of their rights was a constellation of worker centers and workers’ rights organizations across the state. About 40 percent of respondents said that’s where they learned about the law; by comparison, only a bit more than 10 percent said their employer informed them about the law.
Report authors found significant correlation between knowledge about the law and compliance with its requirements, warning that mandatory protections are regularly not being provided. Forty-three percent of employers surveyed did not fulfill a requirement to provide a written contract to qualifying workers, one-third failed to pay overtime to employees who worked more than 40 hours per week, and more than half did not provide pay stubs.
“That general lack of knowledge is something that’s really hampering the bill’s efficacy,” Hancock said.
Since the law’s effective date, the attorney general’s office — which was held from early 2015 until last week by now-Gov. Maura Healey — has received about 214 complaints from someone who selected the “domestic worker law violations” option on a complaint form and brought enforcement actions against employers in 29 cases, according to the report.
Cyndi Mark, chief of the attorney general’s fair labor division, said at the Thursday event that the top state prosecutor’s office has “assessed more than half a million dollars in restitution and penalties on behalf of individual domestic workers.”
Mark said “the report makes clear that we cannot celebrate total compliance or even knowledge of the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights when so many workers and employers don’t even know of its existence,” then highlighted steps the AG’s office has taken since 2015 to support the law, such as providing notices of legal rights for domestic workers in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Nepali, Haitian Creole and Tagalog.
She also said after a U.S. Court of Appeals judge ruled in December 2019 that the domestic worker law and other state wage and hour laws apply to au pairs, the AG’s office reached an agreement with Cultural Care Au Pair — which brought the lawsuit — “where the agency agreed to pay $4.4 million to host families and au pairs.”
“And more importantly, going forward, they agreed to inform host families, the employers, that they are employers under our laws,” Mark said.
Both the state attorney general’s office and the U.S. Department of Labor told researchers they believe the number of complaints they receive from domestic workers “only represents a fraction of the actual number of labor violations” those individuals face. And based on surveys, authors said many workers fear retaliation if they file complaints.
A key problem the report flagged is the private, often informal nature of housekeeping, caretaking, child care and other domestic work. Staff with the attorney general’s office and the U.S. Department of Labor can walk into other businesses and “proactively investigate labor violations,” the report said, but cannot do so when the place of work is someone’s home.
“There is no meaningful way to do targeted outreach directly to employers of domestic workers and educate them about their obligations under the laws because of the challenge in identifying these employers,” Hancock said. “Most hiring of domestic workers occurs in private transactions between an employer and a worker, so agencies often don’t know who the employers are. The private nature of these transactions then causes them to rely on workers themselves or worker centers, who they reported as a key ally in enforcement work, to file complaints on behalf of domestic workers.”
Authors recommended the state Department of Revenue add a “simple yes/no question on state tax forms” asking filers if they hired a domestic worker in the prior year. Hancock said that information could be used to identify households who need to receive outreach about their obligations as employers under the law, but not for enforcement.
The report also proposed launching targeted public service announcement campaigns along the most common public transportation routes domestic workers use to get to and from work, boosting funding for worker centers that play a key role in educating employees, and bringing together regulatory agencies, worker centers and lawmakers for a “coordinated outreach campaign.”
The 2015 law tasked the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, working in consultation with the attorney general’s office, with implementing a “multilingual outreach program to inform domestic workers and employers about their rights and responsibilities,” including topics such as employment agreements, tax and insurance laws, and human resources duties that employers face when they hire domestic workers.
State officials were not immediately able Thursday to provide information about an outreach program, but said they were looking into it.
The report’s findings and recommendations could place the topic on the Legislature’s radar early in the 2023-2024 lawmaking session, when top Democrats are still crafting an agenda of priorities to pursue during Healey’s first term.
“We encourage lawmakers and government officials to work closely with worker centers to implement these recommendations as soon as possible, and certainly not later than the 10-year anniversary of the bill passage in 2024,” Hancock said. “Domestic workers who take care of our homes and families should not have to wait any longer to realize the full promise of this important bill.”