Montgomery Bill Seeks To Protect Domestic Help

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 26, 2008

Two Montgomery County Council members will propose a bill Monday that supporters say would make the county the first in the nation to require written contracts defining working conditions and wages for in-home domestic workers who put in at least 20 hours a week.

The measure is aimed at spelling out employee and employer obligations, which the bill's authors, at-large council members Marc Elrich and George L. Leventhal, both Democrats, said would be particularly beneficial to women, who make up a large proportion of the domestic workforce.

The bill would not affect the 16-year-old who watches your kids or the person who cuts the lawn a few times a month -- unless it takes 20 hours a week. But someone who is helping out grandma a few hours a day could be subject to the proposal.

It would require employers to negotiate with prospective employees and then specify in writing the terms and conditions of employment, as well as existing workers' rights under state and county law. Domestic workers are currently entitled to receive minimum wage -- now $6.15 an hour in Maryland -- as well as overtime pay for work beyond 40 hours per week.

The measure would affect anyone working at least 20 hours a week for the same employer each week in a 30-day period. It covers home child-care workers; someone who cares for a sick, convalescing or elderly person; housekeepers; cooks; cleaners; and anyone who does other work that might be done by members of a household for no pay.

The bill, which would need approval by the County Council and the county executive before becoming law, also would require that employers provide live-in workers with a private room for sleeping with a door that can be locked and reasonable access to kitchen, bathroom and laundry facilities. The bill does not require specific health insurance or vacation benefits.

Montgomery's Office of Consumer Protection would enforce the measure and would draw up a model contract that employers could use. Anyone who doesn't comply could be subject to a penalty of up to $1,000 per violation. Employees would be protected from retaliation if they complained to the agency.

In 2006, a survey by George Washington University for the council found that many domestic workers in Montgomery are underpaid, lack health benefits, don't get paid vacation or sick leave, and work long hours without collecting overtime (1.5 times the hourly rate after 40 hours).

The study found that the average hourly salary for live-in domestic workers is $6.29, slightly more than the state's minimum wage. Those who do not live with their employers earn an average of $9.79 an hour, the study found. The survey also found live-in workers tend to work longer hours: an average of 58 hours a week.

While domestic workers are covered by many provisions of state law, including being entitled to overtime, workers' compensation and minimum wage, they often are unaware of their rights, according to the George Washington study. They also are excluded from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, meaning they do not have the same rights as other workers to organize into labor unions or employee associations to advocate for themselves.

The immigrant advocacy group CASA of Maryland has been pushing for a workers' bill of rights that would require a minimum wage of $10.50 an hour and health insurance. Leventhal said he wasn't comfortable with that. "We don't want Montgomery becoming its own wage and hour board," he said. But the bill, he said, "provides decent things that all workers should have."

No one knows precisely how many employers or employees would be affected by the legislation, but Leventhal speculated that it could be thousands of workers and employers in Montgomery.

Elrich and Leventhal independently had been interested in the issues affecting domestic workers and got together about five months ago to begin hashing out terms.

"Some people often treat these workers in the worst of ways when it comes to fairly compensating them and making sure they have adequate living facilities. This bill would help end those practices," Elrich said.

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