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Activists and domestic workers are asking Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign a bill that would extend safe work requirements to 13 million California households employing domestic help such as housekeepers and gardeners.

Known as the Health and Safety for All Workers Act, the bill was approved by the Legislature on Aug. 27. Newsom has until Sept. 30 to act on the measure.

SB 1257 calls for the removal of a historic exclusion that denies the right to domestic workers — mainly women — to know when there are risks in the workplace, which are primarily private residences. 

Workers like Vicenta Martinez know these risks very closely. She has worked for 22 years cleaning homes. She said the Malibu fires affected her in 2018 when, despite poor air-conditions, ash and toxic emissions, she had to continue cleaning the two houses where she worked.

“I felt the heat and the smoke on my face and in my body but I couldn’t say anything,” Martinez said. “The bosses never gave me a mask or gloves or any protection.”

The one-way bus ride from her home in the MacArthur Park area to Malibu was about an hour and a half. She emphasized that, out of necessity, she continued to work in those houses where she was paid approximately $13 an hour for about five hours.

Exposure at work

Martinez, who has three children, said that due to the low salary she was earning she was unable to go to the doctor or buy her own protective equipment.

 “And now, it is happening again. If it’s not the fires, it is the toxic cleaning chemicals we use that make us sick, ” she said. “Governor sign now. This law will protect our health and safety. “

Noemí Cruz, another domestic worker for 11 years and leader of Mujeres en Acción (Women in Action), a group from the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA), said she has constantly faced health problems from being exposed to toxic cleaning liquid products.

“I feel burning in my throat, in my nose. Also, there are times when we have to lift heavy things and it is more difficult when we are working alone in a house, ”said Cruz.

She added that she was one of the volunteers who have been informing workers of their rights to demand protection during the Malibu fires.

“We would go to the bus stops and give them the pamphlets,” Cruz said. “Workers did tell us that they smelled a lot of smoke but many took it as something normal and worked without protesting.”

A race factor

SB 1257, was written by Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (CA-24) and co-sponsored by a coalition of advocates for domestic employees including IDEPSCA, Coalition of Domestic Workers of California, Defenders of Equal Rights at Work, Association of California Employment Lawyers and AFSCME-UDW. There was no organized opposition to the bill.

Maegan Ortiz, executive director of IDEPSCA, said the exclusion of domestic workers is based on the labor laws that were created in the 1930s. These excluded two groups, domestic workers and agricultural workers.

“At that time, this exclusion was because most of the workers were Black. It is when they were slaves and later workers with low pay and very bad conditions”, explained Ortiz. “Today we know that the majority are immigrants from Latin America.”

The director said that this exclusion is not only based on health and safety but has also been a matter of racism for a long time.

The UCLA labor center estimates that more than 300,000 domestic workers are being affected by the exclusion. 

How the law works

Ortiz said if SB 1257 passes, the employer is responsible for alerting its domestic employees — such as a housekeeper or gardener — if there are risks at work.

“For example, if the boss arrives from Europe and believes there was an outbreak of COVID-19, she should notify and provide the necessary protection to her employees such as hand sanitizer, masks and everything necessary,” said Ortiz.

If the employer fails to do that, the employee can file a complaint with the California Department of Safety and Health (CAL/OSHA).

Ortiz said that during the current wildfires in California employers asked domestic workers to stay behind to help fight fires, protect homes and pets; in addition to cleaning toxic ashes from houses.

“We have members who are babysitters and are working around the Bobcat fire” in Los Angeles, Ortiz said. “Gov. Newsom has the opportunity to continue California’s legacy as a state at the forefront of workplace protections and against racism.”

Jacqueline Garcia is a reporter with La Opinión. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Jacqueline Garcia is a reporter covering poverty and inequality issues for our California Divide collaboration. She is based at La Opinion newspaper in Los Angeles, where she has covered issues ranging...