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California's Domestic Workers Get a Raw Deal in Budget

March 14, 2014

Call it a “war on women,” or call it old-fashioned sexism, but 50 years after the brave activists in the civil rights and women’s movements took to the streets to end inequality and shed light on systematic workplace discrimination, women are still getting paid 20 percent less on average than men, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Not only does equal pay continue to elude us, but a recent proposal in Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget would subvert recent economic progress earned by low-wage women in California.

Last fall President Barack Obama expanded the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act to include domestic workers. The 1938 law established such basic workplace protections as the minimum wage and overtime pay. But the act excluded domestic service – the jobs most likely to be done by African Americans when enacted 75 years ago. The FLSA action benefits more than 300,000 In-Home Supportive Services caregivers in California, 90 percent of whom are women and 70 percent of whom are women of color. They are among our state’s poorest workers, struggling to raise families and make ends meet on poverty wages and meager benefits.

Including domestic workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act was a belated step toward ending exploitation of domestic workers throughout the country and a leap forward for the women who put heart and soul into caring for our loved ones.

Brown’s budget proposes capping IHSS caregivers’ hours in order to deny them overtime pay, turning back the clock on the hard-fought progress of caregivers. Nearly 60,000 caregivers statewide are currently paid for 160 or more hours of service a month. The governor’s proposed cap would cause those caregivers to lose as much as 43 percent of their incomes – earnings often used to feed, clothe and help house the very IHSS consumers they serve, who are often elderly or infirm relatives. Cutting the hours they can work would be a glaring example of how, even in a state known for its progressive history on gender equity issues, women still don’t get a fair shake in the workplace.

California was the first state in the nation to officially commemorate Women’s History Week, and one of the first to add “sex” to the list of groups protected from employment discrimination. We banned disparate workplace treatment of pregnant women and legislated to reduce the “wage gap” that persists between men and women who perform the same work. Last year California was one of the few states to advance women’s reproductive rights by legalizing the dispensation of contraceptives by qualified clinical nurses.

Yet Brown asserts that the proposed cap on caregiver hours is necessary to save the state money, despite projecting $6.3 billion in unanticipated revenue from 2012-13 to 2014-15.

Capping In-Home Supportive Services work hours would be shortsighted as well as hard-hearted. Such a policy would fail to take into account the increased costs to social services likely to result from workers forced deeper into poverty, as well as the increased health care demand that would arise from compromising the continuous, quality care IHSS beneficiaries now receive.

California can best honor the hope and achievements that Women’s History Month symbolizes by calling on Brown to put the state back on the path toward gender equality and uplift of the downtrodden.

Let’s continue to be the leader on the rights of workers that women need us to be, standing on the right side of history – and of fairness.

State Sen. Holly J. Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, represents the 30th Senate District.
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