Opinion: Why I fought for paid sick leave for San Francisco’s domestic workers

I wish my mother, who cared for families across The City, could be here now

By Kimberly Alvarenga

Special to The Examiner

I have vivid memories from my childhood of my mom working as a domestic worker in San Francisco to make a better life for us. Every day, she would leave the house early in the morning while it was still dark. I can still see her silhouette moving slowly to try to make the 14 Mission bus.

I remember being the first kid to be dropped off at school and sitting on a bench by myself because she had to get to work before her employers left for their own jobs. She was a single mother and, like many women who immigrate here, she cared for elders or other people’s children.

She never took a day off because she had to provide for me. She worked even when she was sick and when her bones ached because, if she did not work, she was not paid and could not put food on our table.

Thousands of workers still experience similar conditions today in The City. Many labor laws do not address the specific needs of this industry, which is why making change often takes a long and consistent effort from domestic workers to win new rights and to make those rights real in their lives.

The journey to win the Access to Paid Sick Leave Ordinance in San Francisco, which was recently passed by the Board of Supervisors, is no exception.

Domestic workers historically have been excluded from many basic labor protections. These exclusions are deeply rooted in the long legacy of slavery and anti-Black racism in our country. Domestic workers, who were primarily a Black workforce, were intentionally excluded from labor laws when they were first written early in the 20th century. As a result, the domestic work industry continues to be mostly unregulated and excluded from the protections other workers enjoy.

The impacts of these exclusions can still be seen in how this workforce remains invisible when legislators write laws. The uniqueness of the domestic work industry, such as working for multiple individual employers and behind closed doors, can further marginalize workers and make it harder to address violations and needs in comparison to other workplaces.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that domestic workers’ health needed to be prioritized. They were among the essential workers who continued their jobs at the frontlines of the pandemic. Domestic workers kept going into work, caring for those most vulnerable to the virus without any health and safety protections, without access to paid sick leave and without an economic safety net if they became ill. Many could not take time off to support sick and dying family members, as their communities were among the most impacted in The City. Others, without options, stayed home, but at the expense of losing critical income.

It was in the midst of this crisis that domestic workers decided access to paid sick leave had to be made a priority at the municipal level, while we at the California Domestic Workers Coalition were leading a campaign to secure health and safety protections at the state level.

The Access to Paid Sick Leave Ordinance makes San Francisco one of the first cities in the country to create a portable benefits system for domestic workers to finally access paid sick leave. The system will facilitate the calculation and accrual of paid sick leave for domestic workers and will support domestic employers to contribute their share of what is owed. Domestic workers will be able to accrue paid sick leave hours from multiple employers through a centralized account, which they may access directly through an app or web-based platform.

As San Francisco continues its tradition of innovative leadership on workers’ rights, the ordinance stands as a beacon for other cities, not only in California, but across the country. Making safety net benefits accessible is not only a matter of equity and correcting an historic injustice, it is also part of our vision for the future of the domestic work industry.

My mom worked as a domestic worker most of her life. She passed away earlier this year, and I wonder what she would say if I could tell her now, after a lifetime of hard work taking care of families across The City, that she could take the day off to take care of herself.

While my mom never got to see this new reality domestic workers are building for themselves, there are still thousands of domestic workers today waking up before dawn and dropping their kids off early at school to support their families, while making all other work possible.

It has been a long and hard fought road for many, but today we celebrate this important and historic step toward advancing the dignity and rights of domestic workers.

Kimberly Alvarenga is director of the California Domestic Workers Coalition.

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