For 42 years, the District’s Human Rights Act has protected workers in the nation’s capital from discrimination and harassment based on race, gender or sexual orientation — with one notable exception.
The act, widely seen as one of the most liberal anti-discrimination laws in the nation, excludes “domestic servants, engaged in work in and about the employer’s household.”
This clause has left 100,000 or so nannies, house cleaners and au pairs defenseless, advocates say, against employers who reject their job applications due to their race or national origin, fire them when they become pregnant, or harass or discriminate against them because of their gender or whom they love.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Ingrid Vaca braved the 90-degree heat and an army of mosquitoes to knock on the doors of strangers on the eastern fringes of Capitol Hill in an effort to change it.
“Sorry to disturb you. My name is Ingrid, and I’m a domestic worker,” the 55-year-old housekeeper said, always remembering to smile as she delivered the script she had rehearsed. “If you have some time, please, we need your help.”
Throughout the country, domestic workers frustrated with their working conditions are mobilizing in historic numbers, inspired by the Me Too movement and energized by what they describe as an increasingly hostile political climate. Many are connected by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an advocacy group that has successfully led state and local campaigns to expand rights for domestic workers.
In 2010, New York City nannies and house cleaners gathered at the Harriet Tubman memorial in Harlem to celebrate the passage of the state’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights — at the time, the most expansive of its kind in the country. In April this year, New Mexico became the ninth state to pass a similar law.
In the Washington area, Montgomery County passed its own domestic workers law more than a decade ago, requiring employers to offer written contracts to housekeepers, nannies and others that include clearly defined terms for paid time off, salary and severance.
Now the movement has landed in the District, home to hundreds of diplomats and many wealthy families — and, as a result, a large community of domestic workers.
Nannies and housekeepers want to get the District up to speed with a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which would, among other things, ensure paid sick days and mandatory meal breaks. But before the city can consider such a law, organizers say, it must first change the Human Rights Act so it does not exclude domestic workers from more fundamental protections.
In 2016, Laura Brown, executive director of the legal services organization First Shift Justice Project, met with a nanny in the District who said she was fired by employers after telling them that she was pregnant.
When Brown learned that her client was not protected from such a firing under the Human Rights Act, she commissioned researchers at the University of the District of Columbia Law School’s Legislation Clinic to investigate why. The research team concluded in a 2018 document provided to The Washington Post that it was “most likely a remnant of antiquated and biased ideas about race, gender, and the women of color who traditionally performed domestic work.”
Other experts, including the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s director, Ai-Jen Poo, have said these omissions are a legacy of slavery.
“The exclusion explicitly calls them ‘servants,’ ” noted Yomara Velez, director of organizing projects at the Alliance. “We’re not talking about pay here. We’re talking about a group of women of color explicitly left out of sexual harassment protection. Let’s think about that.”
In the District, as in other liberal jurisdictions, few argue that domestic workers should be left out of protections given to everyone else, Velez said. But legal gaps persist because people are unaware of them, she said.
D.C. Council members Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) are working with advocacy groups to introduce legislation that would amend the Human Rights Act. Allen said he learned about the exclusion only after advocates brought it to his attention last year.
“It’s a very weird gap in the law,” Allen said. “We’ve just started doing our research because it was an issue that I only really learned about in the past year.”
The District’s Office of Human Rights, which enforces the Human Rights Act, declined to comment on the law’s origins or say whether it has received discrimination complaints from domestic workers in the past.
When Vaca was collecting signatures, she encountered a federal employee who insisted that Vaca was protected by labor laws. When Vaca explained that domestic workers in the District are included in some laws regulating compensation and paid time off but not by those that prohibit discrimination and abuse, she received a half-believing shrug.
Domestic workers, mostly immigrant women who work alone behind closed doors, suffer from a chronic lack of visibility, said Kim England, the Harry Bridges Chair of Labor Studies at the University of Washington. This has contributed to a lack of awareness of their working conditions, she said, and in more recent years, pushed them to take advocacy into their own hands.
“We’ve seen waves [of activism] before. But from my perspective, this one is actually working because it’s a worker-led movement,” said England, who has been studying domestic work in the United States for two decades.
In the past two years, the Alliance’s D.C. chapter has grown to 500 members. Organizer Antonia Peña, also a domestic worker, said there has been an “awakening” among her peers.
Some, like 52-year-old Lourdes Feriufino, are fed up with the experiences they have had on the job. Since she started working in the District, the Salvadoran nanny said she has been rejected by employers multiple times because of her dark skin tone.
“Before, I didn’t say nothing. But seven months ago, I tell myself, ‘Okay, stop, no more,’ ” Feriufino said.
Other workers are joining the effort as the Trump administration takes aim at other issues affecting them, such as immigration. Vaca, who is undocumented, said she has noticed an uptick in the number of employers using her undocumented status to fire her or dismiss requests to renegotiate her salary. The mother of two, originally from Bolivia, said she has grown used to spending her weekends attending protests or canvassing.
Changing the D.C. Human Rights Act will not be a panacea for the abuses faced by domestic workers, Velez said, but it is a necessary first step. Trekking through the Kingman Park neighborhood that Saturday, Vaca agreed.
“This is my life,” she said, climbing the stairs toward her 16th house, her hands pushing down on knees swollen from arthritis.
“If not me, who else will do it?”