Sen. Jennifer McClellan: The Passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights

By Senator Jennifer McClellan

My mother was born in the Gulf Coast of Mississippi during the Great Depression.  Her grandmother, mother, and sisters were domestic workers for white families. My great-grandmother Elnora was a live-in domestic for one family.  After her children left home, my grandmother Leona cared for a bed-ridden elderly woman. My Aunts Lorena, Hazel, and Mina were domestics for white families all of their adult lives.  And my mother worked part-time providing childcare during high school. As she tells it, “that’s all they could do.” As elsewhere in the South, employment options for Blacks—especially Black women—were limited.  Only by leaving Mississippi could my mother and her sister Henrietta find other work opportunities, eventually becoming a college counselor and nursing assistant respectively.   

For more than 400 years, the American economy has been built on the backs of domestic workers – first through slavery, and then through low-wage jobs that allowed others to work at jobs closed to Black workers.  As worker protection legislation developed through the Progressive and New Deal Eras, Southern Congressmen and state legislatures ensured domestic work and other jobs available to Blacks were excluded. In 2019, the General Assembly eliminated minimum wage exclusions for newsboys, shoe-shine boys, babysitters, ushers, doormen, concession attendants, and theater cashiers.  Yet today, domestic workers remain excluded from minimum wage, unemployment compensation, and workers compensation laws. Moreover, domestic workers have no remedies for workplace harassment and discrimination or nonpayment of wages. Without these protections, many workers tolerate low or no pay and abusive situations. Indeed, according to the Economic Policy Institute, 17% of domestic workers live in poverty.  In 2018, the national median annual salary for domestic workers was $18,720, but it could go as low as $14,976 among house cleaners.  

I can only imagine what life as a domestic worker was like for my great-grandmother, grand-mother, and aunts in Jim Crow Mississippi.  But for Lenka Mendoza, the lack of worker protections is all too real today.  

For the last two decades, Lenka has cleaned homes and hotels or worked as a nanny after moving to Prince William County from Peru.  Many times, her pay was not enough to afford her own child care. The working conditions at many of these jobs were bad, and she developed arthritis and respiratory issues from the cleaning chemicals. 

“Your hours are not recognized,” she recalled earlier this year. “You only get paid for eight hours and you don’t have the right to complain. Many of us are threatened for our migratory status.”

She also recounted the plight of a pregnant coworker who worked 12 hour days, even when her husband was dying of cancer.  

“The only day she took off was the day her husband died, and they deducted it from her pay,” she said. “He died that day, and the next day she had to go back to work.”

However, things are changing.  Partnering with Care in Action, Delegates Wendy Gooditis, Marcia Price, Kathy Tran, and I introduced legislation to create a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.  Last week, Virginia became the first Southern state to begin extending worker protections to domestic workers. My SB 804 eliminates the domestic worker exemption from Virginia’s Minimum Wage Act and creates a working group to study and make recommendations on how to extend other employment protections to domestic workers.  

Domestic workers are one of the fastest-growing work forces in our nation, with over 60,000 in Virginia.  Over 90% are women, and half of all domestic workers are women of color. They are entrusted to care for our families and homes, and their work should be valued.  We have a long way to go to correct the historical inequities that go back generations in my family – and thousands of other families in Virginia. However, we have taken a major step forward in Virginia for 60,000 domestic workers through the Passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

While SB 804 is a major step forward, our work has only just begun.