California Über Alles

A roadblock for California domestic workers.

This week, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The governor framed his objections in technocratic terms, but the fight for fair labor standards for domestic workers, at the cutting edge of both feminist and labor struggles in this country, have far-reaching political consequences.

In his veto statement, Brown said, “In the face of consequences both unknown and unintended, I find it more prudent to do the studies before considering an untested legal regime for those that work in our homes.” The implicit address to the upper classes is striking: “our homes.”  What’s explicit is the action serves to keep invisible work invisible.  And invisible work is cheap. Brown’s caution about disrupting something as “intimate” as care work is simply the denial for 200,000 Californians of overtime pay, meal and rest periods, and uninterrupted sleep.

Let’s run a quick fact check for the Governor.  His primary concern, was how “overtime, rest and meal periods” for homecare workers might negatively impact people who need round-the-clock care. National data from the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute shows that improved labor protections for homecare workers are actually better for consumers both in terms of the quality and cost of care.

Right now, one of the biggest expenses employers encounter are transition costs, as precarious workers move frequently between jobs. Better jobs means a more stable workforce, leading to more continuity of care at a lower cost.

PHI also roundly dispelled the myth that overtime pay would cripple the $84 billion dollar industry — in truth, fewer than 10 percent of homecare workers work overtime. Most do not work full-time, but would like to do so, making it possible to spread overtime hours among workers looking for full-time employment. Furthermore, agencies typically charge consumers twice as much as they pay workers. They could obviously improve labor conditions at zero cost to employers while still turning a profit.

Yet Brown tipped his hat to workers, calling them “noble” and suggesting that the regulations would worsen their job prospects. This seems unlikely.

With an American turning sixty-five every eight seconds, there is overwhelming demand for domestic work.  And workers in this sector promise to become a force in American politics.

Signs include the DWU’s success in passing a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York and the growth of the national Caring Across Generations campaign.  Ensuring decent conditions now will mean greater capacity to organize in the future.  Perhaps aware of this, Brown rooted his opposition to the bill with fear mongering.  He questioned the potential for these changes to “force people out of their homes and into licensed institutions.”

Brown is right that someone will have to spend more money and that the need to support both caretakers and those cared for cannot be accommodated by the status quo.

But domestic workers aren’t forcing the old out into the street — that would be the austerity policies pursued by politicians like Brown.  The well-being of those who need care doesn’t have to come at the expense of the basic needs of those who care for them.  While stripping down funding for child care, education, and public parks in California, Brown has managed to make compensation for domestic workers look like a zero sum game. It isn’t.