OPINION: Domestic Workers Continue to Deserve Better

by Dana Barnett and Silvia Gonzalez

The antiracist roots of Seattle’s Domestic Worker Ordinance, which had its first anniversary on July 1, aren’t immediately obvious nearly a century after most other workers gained basic workplace protections. But there is a deep connection between anti-Black racism, the legacy of slavery, and the long fight for domestic worker protections. 

July 1 marked the one-year anniversary of the implementation of the Domestic Worker Ordinance in the City of Seattle passed by the Seattle City Council. This ordinance guarantees labor rights for an industry sector long excluded from basic protections like minimum wage, rest and meal breaks, and freedom from harassment and discrimination. Beyond these protections, the ordinance also means that employers can’t hold passports or other identifying documents from those who work in their home, nor can they retaliate against their employees based on their citizenship status.

If these protections seem pretty basic, it’s because they are. And up until one year ago, nannies, house cleaners, home care attendants, gardeners, and many others were working without even these rights. Why? Because in the 1930s, racist southern legislators refused to include domestic workers and agricultural workers, most of whom were Black, in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA promised workers 40hour work weeks, minimum wage, and the ability to unionize.

Since 2010, policy wins like the one in Seattle have helped begin to correct the structural racism domestic workers have long faced in the United States. Coalitions like Seattle’s Domestic Worker Coalition have advocated for policies that are considerably more powerful than the first bills passed a decade ago. Local and national organizations like Casa Latina, Working Washington, Hand in Hand, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and SEIU 775 helped to make Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda’s bill a huge victory for workers across the city. This win guaranteed new rights for over 30,000 domestic workers in Seattle.

However, domestic workers in the United States continue to be majority women of color at the intersections of oppressed identities. The relationships between anti-Black racism and other forms of oppression contribute to the perpetuation of the casual nature of domestic work and the reluctance of lawmakers in other cities and states to pass and enforce policy. 

Across the country, domestic workers earn a median wage of $10.21 hourly and over 75% are simultaneously heads of their household. In Seattle, domestic workers earn a minimum of $15.75 hourly, yet anyone who lives in Seattle knows this is not really a liveable wage. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the majority of domestic workers lost their entire income without being able to apply for or receive unemployment benefits.

Domestic workers locally and across the country need community investment now, in the form of food and housing assistance, public health accessibility, and safe and healthy schools. With a massive budget shortfall due to COVID-19, defunding the police and investing in community services like these will benefit domestic workers. That’s why the Seattle Domestic Worker Standards Board wrote a letter to Mayor Durkan in support of the demands lifted up by Black-led organizations including Black Lives Matter Seattle King County, Defund SPD, and King County Equity Now. The letter in full is below. 

June 5, 2020

Dear Mayor Jenny Durkan,

The Domestic Workers Standards Board (DWSB) condemns the violence perpetrated against Black people by police here and across the country and calls for the immediate defunding of the Seattle Police Department (SPD).

It has become clear that SPD and police forces nationwide have abdicated their mission to serve and protect the public. Peaceful protests have escalated into violent conflict because police forces chose to treat Constitutionally-protected protest as a criminal act.

As the city faces a massive shortfall of revenue from the global pandemic of COVID-19, we ask that, instead of allocating nearly $400 million to SPD, a minimum of 50% of the public safety budget be redistributed into departments and initiatives that serve the best interest of Seattle’s Black communities.

Furthermore, the Domestic Workers Standards Board co-signs the demands made explicit by the Decriminalize Seattle Coalition and specifically Defund SPD and Black Lives Matter – Seattle/King County, outlined in full here, and in the petition of King County Equity Now

We pledge our unwavering support in the fight to establish justice, equity, and safety for Black people in Seattle, and we demand the same from you, Mayor Durkan, and every elected official in this city. We enthusiastically support ongoing protests until the needs of the Black community are met.

Mayor Durkan, you and the Seattle City Council appointed us to determine the needs, principles, and protocols for the domestic worker community. We believe, by standing with our Black neighbors and demanding their right to life, liberty, and equal protection under the law, that we are fulfilling that mission.


 The City of Seattle Domestic Workers Standards Board

Dana Barnett and Silvia Gonzalez, co-chairs of the Seattle Domestic Workers Standards Board

Featured image by Emerald Staff.