Vivian Calatayud was an architect in her home country of Bolivia. When she immigrated to the United States, she took what jobs she could find — she cleaned offices and cared for seniors and eventually became a nanny.
As a single mother, she struggled to support her daughter, she said. Hoping to increase her pay, she took classes in early childhood development and got certified in CPR. But when searching for work, she was often frustrated by what she called "unhealthy competition" with other nannies, who were willing to work for less.
"When you sell yourself for so cheap, the life you give to your family is cheap," she said. "Some people make do with very little. They live all together in one room, or multiple families in a room. It's not a healthy life."
Recently, she saw an ad on Facebook for a gathering of domestic workers to learn about their rights, and improve training and standards for the professions. So on a Saturday afternoon, she joined nearly 100 domestic workers and advocates at St. Stephen's church in Columbia Heights. The D.C. meeting was part of broad effort to organize domestic workers in the nation's capital and beyond by the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Over two months, organizers for the alliance visited bus stops, Metro stations, playgrounds and public libraries to recruit and train nannies, housekeepers and other domestic workers on their rights and how to negotiate on their own behalf. They stood outside an Ethiopian evangelical church and a Polish Catholic church after busy Sunday services. And they posted ads through social media.
There are more than 2 million nannies, house cleaners, and home-based care workers for the elderly and disabled in the United States, including more than 100,000 in the Washington region. They are one of the fastest growing workforces, economists say, but they labor in relative isolation and with few legal protections.
A 2012 survey of more than 2,000 domestic workers in 14 metropolitan areas by the New York-based alliance found that 23 percent are paid less than minimum wage, 65 percent have no health insurance, and most have little control over their working conditions.
Domestic workers historically have been excluded from important labor protections in the United States.
When fair labor laws in the 1930s gave workers the right to organize as unions and to earn minimum wage and overtime pay, lawmakers left out domestic workers. Their work was associated with the unpaid labor of women and a largely African American workforce that was descended from slaves.
Congress extended minimum wage and overtime protections to some domestic workers in the 1970s, but it added an exemption for workers who provide in-home "companionship services"— a loophole that was broadly interpreted. In 2015, that loophole was closed.
But many domestic workers remain invisible in the law when it comes to discrimination protections from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, safety protections from the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the right to maternity or sick leave found in the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Over the past century, domestic workers have organized through cooperatives or labor centers, or, increasingly through immigrant rights groups. The alliance represents a network of more than 60 affiliated groups. In the past decade, they have made gains.
A growing number of states, including New York, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Oregon, Connecticut, Illinois, and Nevada, have passed domestic workers' bills of rights, which extend federal labor laws to provide additional protections. They vary, but some provide protection from discrimination and sexual harassment or benefits such as overtime pay, maternity leave and paid days off.
"These bills are aspirational and they are important because they say that these are workers who deserve decent work.," said Eileen Boris, a scholar of the domestic workers rights movement at the University of California at Santa Barbara. But she said their impact is limited because there are few built-in mechanisms for enforcement.
Lacking enforcement, domestic workers do best when they band together so they can make each other aware of their rights, and so they can police the standards themselves, she said.
Organizing workers who spend their days in private homes is not easy.
On a warm October afternoon, lead organizer Antonia Peña went to a playground in Friendship Heights with two other organizers. The park was crowded with children fresh from afternoon naps — and their caregivers.
"Are you a mommy or are you a nanny? asked Ingrid Vaca, a house cleaner and former nanny who volunteers with the alliance. She handed the woman a flier advertising the October gathering for domestic workers.
The playground is a lifeline for nannies, she said. That's where they learn how others are being paid and treated and how their own situations compare.
Adelaide Tembe also came to recruit women for the event. She got involved in domestic workers right after she came to the United States with a diplomatic family from Mozambique and found herself in an abusive relationship.
"They said I was coming to take care of the children, but then I had to clean the house, do the gardening, cook the meals — and for much less pay," she said.
Some advocates from Casa de Maryland, an immigrant rights group, eventually confronted her employer and helped Tembe find another place to live and work.
At the gathering in Columbia Heights, Peña, the lead organizer for the alliance in the District, stood before a room full of women she had worked hard to find and invite.
"There are many injustices that exist in this work and in this country for immigrants. That's why we are here to get to know each other," she said. "Laws are made by people and laws can change."
During the afternoon, the women talked about the parts of their work that make them proud and the parts that bring them stress.
A team of organizers from New York led a training session on how to negotiate contracts, whether verbally for house cleaners or on paper, for nannies.
They advised them to renegotiate when their job duties change, when their employer has another child, for example, or gets a new dog that they are expected to walk or clean up after.
Anna Janiak, 62, a home health-care worker who is new to the field after a career as a research scientist, traveled from Baltimore for the event. She said she knows her work is important: "People will live longer because of my help," she said.
But she also knows that her work is underpaid and underappreciated. She is interested in being part of a social movement to change that, she said.
"It is always better to be in a group than to be a facing a problem by yourself," she said.