Gov Murphy at Bill Signing
Research by the Rutgers Center for Women and Work helped to build momentum for the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights recently signed by Gov. Murphy.

Three years after a Rutgers report revealed the widespread exploitation of New Jersey’s nannies, housecleaners, home health aides, and other domestic workers, a new law is helping to address some of the challenges they face.

The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights mandates written contracts, improved working conditions, wage protections, lunch breaks, and paid time-off for the state’s 50,000 domestic workers, most of whom are women and immigrants.

“I think they’ve been treated as second-class citizens within the labor realm,” Gov. Murphy said when he signed the new law on Jan. 12.

Rutgers Today talked to Debra Lancaster, executive director of the Rutgers Center for Women and Work and co-author of the report, and Jenifer Garcia Pelaez, a 2021 Rutgers graduate and an organizer at the worker center New Labor, who advocated for the law.

What did the report reveal about New Jersey’s domestic workers?

Lancaster: Domestic workers are essential to the individuals and families who rely on them, but they are some of the lowest paid workers in our state. Their work is often invisible.

We partnered with the National Domestic Workers Alliance and a coalition of advocacy groups, including New Labor, to survey 400 domestic workers across the state. We found that 90 percent of them did not have a written contract, 57 percent were victims of wage theft, 54 percent had no health insurance, and 49 percent had no sick time or vacation time. Some didn’t even get a lunch break.

Many domestic workers told us they did not have a stable schedule, making it hard to arrange childcare or go to the doctor or work a second job. Some had suffered injuries at work.

How did the Rutgers Center for Women and Work help to advance the new law?

Garcia Pelaez: The research process created time and space for domestic workers to share their experiences, build community, gain confidence, and know that they are not alone. The final report then enabled us to answer questions about the size and scope of the challenges our members face day in and day out. All of this helped to build momentum for the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.

Working with a research institution like Rutgers helped us reach community members and policymakers. People respect the Center for Women and Work. Legislators may not have time to read a whole report, but we were able to give them data points and news articles and op-eds citing the report, which helped to improve their understanding of the issues.

What is the biggest win in the new law?

Garcia Pelaez: Wage theft is pervasive. Many employers are not paying workers what they are owed, and we have seen again and again that verbal contracts are part of the problem. We believe that requiring a written contract between employers and domestic workers will help, and that is one important feature of the new law.

In addition, one of the most exciting things to come out of this is that domestic workers are now enjoying some visibility and respect in our communities and in the State House. That is so meaningful to the women who have participated in the research, worked on the campaign, and talked with legislators about their concerns.

Why are domestic workers especially vulnerable to exploitation?

Lancaster: Historically, domestic workers have been intentionally excluded from basic labor protections including the Fair Labor Standards Act, the National Labor Relations Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Some of these exclusions date back to reforms and regulations implemented after the Great Depression, leaving behind domestic workers and farmworkers – jobs filled largely by Black workers, immigrants, and women, both then and now. This is a great illustration of how structural racism and sexism pervade our economy.

How do worker centers like New Labor help?

Garcia Pelaez: New Labor and worker centers like ours offer English classes, workers’ rights training, and eventsspaces that allow workers to network and build relationships. We empower people to make changes. We help them to believe in themselves and to get comfortable taking action to address individual, workplace, and community problems.

We know that we are having an impact. We have collected data, and we see that where we are organizing, it has an effect on things like wages. Hopefully this new law will make things better for domestic workers. I’m feeling hopeful about the future.