Domestic Workers Bill Passes in Montgomery

Council member Marc Elrich was one of the bill's sponsors.
Council member Marc Elrich was one of the bill's sponsors. (Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post)
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By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Montgomery County residents who employ nannies, housekeepers or cooks for at least 20 hours a week would be required to offer workers a written contract that spells out job conditions such as wages and benefits, under legislation passed yesterday that county officials said might be the first of its kind in the nation.

In most cases, residents would have to provide live-in help with a separate room, with a lock, for sleeping and "reasonable access" to a bathroom, kitchen and laundry room. The bill, approved unanimously by the County Council, would cover in-home domestic workers whose employment lasts at least 30 days.

The measure does not cover the hiring of nurses, child-care workers from overseas who are classified as au pairs or self-employed companions to elderly and disabled individuals.

Montgomery's Office of Consumer Protection would enforce the measure and could fine violators as much as $1,000.

The "nanny bill," as it became known on the council, is meant to clarify expectations between employers and employees and to protect from exploitation some of the county's most vulnerable workers, many of whom are immigrant women.

"I find it incredible that some people will trust others with their most precious possessions -- their families and their homes -- but then not fairly treat the employees who perform these domestic services," said council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), one of the sponsors.

County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who plans to sign the measure, said in a statement that it is "only right that the county reach out to let them know that they too have rights that deserve to be respected."

Before the vote yesterday, the outcome was uncertain as some council members worried that the measure would make it more difficult to hire such workers and that it would be open to misinterpretation by the public.

"I was concerned about the reputation of our institution and whether we would be deemed to be the nanny government of all time," said council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), prompting chuckles from some of his colleagues.

But he said he became convinced that the measure "threaded the needle of advancing important interests without overreaching."

Passage of the bill followed a three-year lobbying effort by a coalition of labor, religious and student groups, led by the immigrant advocacy group CASA of Maryland. Supporters celebrated the council's vote with resounding applause in the seventh-floor council chamber.

Under existing law, domestic workers are entitled to minimum wage and are supposed to receive overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours a week. Most, however, do not have the same rights to organize that federal law provides other workers.

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