We clean houses after wildfires and during COVID-19; domestic workers should be covered with safety protections by Cal/OSHA.
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When the fires started burning here in Sonoma County recently, I thought back to 2018, the last time my city of Santa Rosa was in flames.
My family and I packed our bags and were ready to evacuate, just like we did last time. During the last round of fires, I came back to Santa Rosa as soon as the fires had been extinguished. I got hired to clean homes that had been evacuated by their owners, houses that were full of smoke and ash.
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The owners wanted me to clean them up before they returned. I knew it might be dangerous, but after more than three weeks without work, my family needed the money.
I cleaned houses for two weeks, and I began to feel sick. My skin became dry and itchy, my eyes burned, and I got nose bleeds. I developed headaches and breathing problems that lasted for months, even after I had stopped cleaning houses. My employers did not give me any protective equipment or explain the health hazards of the job.
As a leader of the California Domestic Workers Coalition, I have heard the stories of hundreds of other domestic workers like me, who have felt pressured to work in dangerous conditions, during the wildfires and now with COVID-19. I’ve heard from workers who were afraid they would lose their jobs if they asked their employers to provide them with protective equipment or non-toxic cleaning supplies.
We have good reason to be afraid. As domestic workers, we do not have the legal right to protective equipment, health or safety training or information about possible hazards on the job because we are not included in the basic occupational health and safety protections of Cal/OSHA. Every other kind of worker has the right to a healthy and safe work environment, and it’s illegal to retaliate against them for exerting that right. But not us domestic workers.
That’s why we joined forces with state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, a Democrat from Los Angeles, to pass Senate Bill 1257, the Health and Safety for All Workers Act, which would end the exclusion of domestic workers from Cal/OSHA.
Over the last five months, homecare workers, nannies and house cleaners like me have been meeting with legislators, explaining what it’s like to work without health and safety protections.
While there are other bills in the Legislature this year that protect domestic workers from retaliation for trying to protect their health during wildfires, SB 1257 is the only bill that finally gives us the same health and safety protections that all other workers have, whether we are working during a pandemic, a wildfire or facing the normal day to day hazards of our jobs.
On Aug. 30, SB 1257 the Health and Safety for All Workers Act made it through the Legislature and now, Gov. Gavin Newsom must decide if he will sign the bill into law or veto it.
I know the governor is busy dealing with the fires across the state and this pandemic, but I hope he thinks about those of us who will be called in to clean up in the wake of the fires. I’m worried about all of my fellow housecleaners who are out of work because of COVID-19 and are desperate for any income.
They will feel pressure to take any kind of job, no matter how dangerous, and some employers will take advantage of their desperation, just like they took advantage of mine. And sadly with climate change, these forest fires will most likely be more and more damaging each year.
I hope the governor sees that just like other workers, we too get sick and injured at work, we too have families who depend on us, and we too deserve protection.
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