In 1913, California's Progressive and Republican governor, Hiram Johnson, cried out for "the necessity" of providing thousands of women workers "a living wage." With social reform at flood tide, Johnson signed one of the nation's first labor standards laws, establishing a state Industrial Welfare Commission with powers to investigate and establish proper working conditions for women and children.
Denounced by Harrison Grey Otis' Los Angeles Times as one of "the socialistic, senseless, and freakish measures" of "Holy Hiram," the commission would over time curb the hours and raise the wages of women employed in stores, offices, canneries and factories. But omitted was the largest single female occupation, domestic service.
A century later, Gov. Jerry Brown has the opportunity to fulfill Johnson's promise of workplace fairness. He can sign the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, Assembly Bill 889, just passed by the Legislature, and ensure that more than half a million California nannies, elder care workers and personal attendants hired by individual households finally obtain the overtime pay, rest breaks and other protections recognized since Johnson's days as necessary for "a proper living."
Because they labor in the home, many thought that these cleaners and caregivers were not truly workers. After all, if a "man's home is his castle," then it is an entirely private sphere where state employment laws constituted an alien intrusion. Indeed, New Deal social legislation came to a halt at the family door, putting millions of household employees and agricultural laborers, jobs overrepresented by African Americans and immigrants, outside the law. During the 1950s and 1960s, every time California raised the state minimum wage, these groups remained left out. Efforts in 1968 and 1973 by the Industrial Welfare Commission to rectify this omission came to naught.
But domestic workers, aided by the National Committee on Household Employment, were on the march, demanding recognition and decent treatment. Joined by housewife employers and major women's organizations the new feminists as well as the mainline National Councils of Negro, Jewish and Catholic women domestics testified before state boards and lobbied Congress.
In 1974, they won coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act. California took another two years to write them into the state minimum wage. In 1976, the commission whose determinations by then extended to men as well as women issued Wage Order 15 for "Employees in Household Occupations." This order provided a floor on wages; it also regulated hours, forbid deductions for breakage or uniforms, and mandated employer record keeping.
Wage Order 15 encompassed those domestics whose primary task was housework, but considered those who cared for people as ineligible for its protections. The logic here replicated that of the FLSA, which designated "casual baby sitters and elder companions" outside its provisions.
California law classified such personal attendants even more broadly as "any person employed by a private householder to supervise, feed or dress a child or person who by reasons of advanced age, physical disability or mental deficiency needs supervision." Such definitions reinforced the false association of the teenage baby sitter with the adult breadwinner. So domestics who washed floors and windows were doing real work, but if they cleaned or helped feed a person that was something altogether different, care rather than labor.
More than a quarter century passed before the California Legislature again would take up the question of domestic labor as worthy work, deserving legal recognition. Once thought a declining occupation, paid domestic labor had returned as a solution to the difficulties of balancing work and family that the middle class faced when mothers of small children went out to work. A new generation of Asian and Latin American immigrants entered California's homes to take up the slack, numbering about 200,000 workers by 2010.
Led by the California Domestic Worker Coalition, these immigrant women and their ethnic associations have spearhead today's movement for redress. Backed by expert research, the coalition has shown how poor working conditions impede job performance and worker health, hurting us all. Their first attempt ended with a veto by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006. Now AB 889 has emerged from the Legislature. It includes overtime, meal and rest breaks, and uninterrupted sleep for live-in workers.
It is up to Jerry Brown to make history: Will he join Arnold Schwarzenegger to suppress worker rights or will he embrace the legacy of Hiram Johnson to expand the arc of justice?