Immigrants' rights groups and other advocates are pressuring the Montgomery County Council to pass a "bill of rights" for household workers that would require employers to pay a minimum wage of $10.50 per hour and provide sick leave, two-day weekends and paid vacation.
The cause lacks a sponsor on the council, but proponents said the would-be bill's two most likely supporters are council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) and Vice President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large). However, council spokesman Patrick Lacefield said Tuesday that neither member is "ready to introduce it at this time."
Leventhal, who chairs the council's Health and Human Services committee, said that Casa de Maryland is proposing a "very far-reaching bill" and that before he supports such a measure, he wants to conduct a survey of working conditions for domestic employees in Montgomery.
Leventhal held hearings on the abuse of domestic workers in February, but since then some of the activists involved in the issue have grown frustrated.
"We are disappointed that there has not been a more aggressive, proactive role around the injustice happening to the working women of this county," said Juan Carlos Ruiz, an adviser at Casa de Maryland, an immigrants' rights group that is the driving force behind the proposed legislation.
The bill of rights reflects growing demands by domestic workers that legislators pass and enforce laws that would offer household workers the same rights and protections that other workers receive. "Domestic workers are not demanding special treatment," said Jeredine Williams, executive director of Migrant and Refugee Cultural Support Inc. "They are merely asking to be given the same opportunity to succeed as anyone else."
The proposed legislation would establish a minimum wage and other rules governing the terms of employment, forbid discrimination and retaliation against workers who complain, and authorize the county's little-known Commission on Human Rights to adjudicate claims that workers' rights have been violated.
Passage might be likely for two reasons. One is that the county is in some ways a laboratory for activist legislation; its measures to regulate the cable Internet industry and to encourage the importation of lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada for county employees and retirees are among the first in the nation.
Another is that many of the county's elected officials have adopted policies that favor immigration, such as County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's 2003 decision to recognize documents issued by the governments of Mexico and Guatemala as valid identification for residents seeking county services. Most domestic workers in the county are recent immigrants, advocates said.
But the political ground might be shifting on immigration. Although the county has for years funded a Silver Spring day-labor center operated by Casa de Maryland and opened another one in Wheaton in September, a plan this month to open a third such center in Gaithersburg fizzled after neighbors objected. County officials did not overlook the nationally aired controversy over a proposed day-labor center in Herndon this summer.
In a political year -- elections for the council and county executive are set for November 2006 -- a major piece of legislation that mainly favors immigrant workers could be a harder sell.
Ruiz said a press conference held Tuesday at Casa de Maryland's headquarters in Silver Spring and a community meeting planned for Oct. 30 at the Long Branch Community Center were intended to encourage council members to embrace the issue and the legislation.
The Coalition for Domestic Worker Rights, launched Tuesday, includes a group of some 45 women, almost all domestic workers, who have formed the Committee of Women Seeking Justice, as well as the Asian Pacific American Legal Resources Center, Progressive Maryland and other organizations.
The coalition also is supported by a group of area Catholics, the Montgomery County Justice and Advisory Council of the Washington Archdiocese. Russell M. Testa, a member of the advisory council, argued that the County Council must pass the proposed legislation. "This is a moral imperative," he said.