A state law providing domestic workers with basic protections from labor abuses is little known and barely used, according to a yearlong study from Brazilian Worker Center and Boston College Law Civil Rights Clinic.
Domestic workers are among the most isolated workers most in the commonwealth: they work in the privacy of people’s homes, and according to the report, over 80% are hired directly by their employer. There’s no human resources division to call, no break room to discuss worker rights by the water cooler.
The Massachusetts Domestic Workers Bill of 2014 is supposed to provide domestic workers with straightforward labor protections, like a contract in a language that workers understand, payroll records, overtime pay and time off.
But researchers found that the majority of those workers and employers had little or no knowledge of the law, and that there were serious violations by employers.
“Domestic workers deserve to feel safe and dignified at work, just like workers in all other industries, and this report is another step in achieving that reality,” said Lenita Reason, executive director of the Brazilian Worker Center. “This report shows that large gaps exist in knowledge about the law, which hampers its enforcement. We need more education and resources for worker centers in order to fully realize the promise of the law.”
The study involved interviews and a survey to 205 mostly Brazilian domestic workers, and 124 of their employers.
Over three-quarters of the domestic worker respondents had zero to little knowledge of the law. Almost half of employers said the same. Results of the survey indicated that basic rights like overtime pay and a written contract for services are usually not provided to domestic workers. The report comes three months after the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting launched the Trafficking Inc series profiling several domestic workers who were victims of forced labor in Massachusetts, working long days for meager pay, afraid to seek help.
Over 90% of workers surveyed said they didn’t seek help when they thought their rights were violated. Of those, 36% said they didn’t even know how to get help.
The lack of an obvious path for workers to submit their grievances about employers had tangible consequences. Over 90% of the workers worked more than 16 hours for their employer, which means the law required that they be provided with employment contracts. That only happened for just over 10% of the workers.
A third of employers with workers who worked more than 40 hours a week didn’t pay them overtime. Two-thirds of those employers had annual incomes over $150,000. Of the workers, 86% said they had an annual income of less than $40,000.
Advocates are concerned the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, which is tasked with enforcement of the law, has no “meaningful way” to identify employers of domestic workers so that they can be educated about their obligations under the law before a violation happens, or a complaint is made.
Since the law went into effect in 2015, the attorney general’s office has received 214 complaints about domestic worker law violations, and brought enforcement actions in 29.
The report’s authors said the attorney general’s office told them they are likely “receiving far fewer complaints than there are actual violations of the [law] that are happening.”
Another hurdle to enforcement is simply identifying the people who employ domestic workers. They often pay under the table and keep no payroll records, meaning their transactions with employees aren’t monitored or reported to the government. The report authors suggest adding a “yes” or “no” question on state tax forms asking filers if they paid a domestic worker in the prior calendar year.
They also propose making legal changes to allow the state’s Department of Revenue to share this information with the attorney general’s office, so the agency can directly send employers information about the law.
Advocates are hoping to boost education and enforcement of the law with a statewide campaign among worker centers and government agencies, including additional funding for he centers. They’d also like to see the attorney general’s office expand outreach materials beyond English, Spanish and Portuguese, and offer more options for language interpretation.
Erika Souza said the Brazilian Worker Center helped her recognize her rights when her employer wasn’t paying her properly.
“There are many domestic workers who don't know about the law and unfortunately many employers ignore it,” she said.
Despite the challenges, some celebrated the successes the law has seen since its implementation.
“We successfully defended our domestic worker Bill of Rights and the minimum wage and overtime laws as applied to au pairs,” said Cyndi Mark, Chief of the Public Protection & Advocacy Bureau at the attorney general’s office, in Thursday’s unveiling of the report.
Mark recalled an agreement the attorney general’s office made with Cultural Care, the largest au pair agency in the state, in the First Circuit Court of Appeals in 2020. The agency agreed to pay $4.4 million to host families and au pairs in a dispute over whether federal law preempts the state’s more stringent wage and hour laws.