Committee approves anti-retaliation protections for domestic workers

Chicago residents hiring domestic workers must sign a written contract agreeing to pay at least $15 an hour. Such contracts, also covering schedule and work conditions, are required for housecleaners as well — even if it’s only once or twice a month.

SHARE Committee approves anti-retaliation protections for domestic workers
From left: Beatriz Tlaloni, a nanny and an Arise Chicago Member, speaks while Isabel Escobar, a home cleaner and Arise Chicago member, and Arise Chicago Executive Director Rev. C.J. Hawking listen during a press conference announcing a new outreach program that will raise awareness about a new city ordinance giving domestic workers the right to a written contract at the Arise Chicago office in the West Town neighborhood, Friday morning, Sept. 17, 2021. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Beatriz Tlaloni (at microphone), a nanny and an Arise Chicago member, speaks at a news conference in September to spread the word about the new city ordinance requiring written contracts for domestic workers.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Six months ago, the City Council approved a sweeping pandemic relief package, including a requirement that anyone in Chicago hiring a “domestic worker” enter into a written contract to pay them at least $15-an-hour.

The mandatory contract — which besides pay also outlines schedule and working conditions — is required even for someone cleaning your house once a week or just once or twice a month.

On Thursday, the Council’s Committee on Workforce Development put some teeth into the latest in a string of ordinances aimed at preventing employers from retaliating against workers during the pandemic.

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The amendment championed by Workforce Committee Chairwoman Susan Sadlowski-Garza (10th) states: “It shall be unlawful for any employer to discriminate in any manner or take any adverse action against any individual in retaliation for exercising any right … including but not limited to disclosing, reporting or testifying against” their employer.

The substitute language also doubles — from $500 to $1,000 — the maximum fine for violating the city’s sweeping worker protections in Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s so-called “Chi-Biz Strong” ordinance, including the anti-retaliation and wage theft provisions.

More specific fines already are included in Chicago’s paid sick-leave, minimum wage and fair workweek ordinances that require predictable scheduling.

Andy Fox, director of labor standards at the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, said the ordinance “explicitly prohibits retaliation against anyone availing themselves of the city’s worker protection provisions, including domestic workers.”

It also “reorganizes Title 6 worker protections for ease of use and understanding” by workers and bosses alike, he said.

“The only difference between the substitute ordinance before you today and the ordinance that was introduced is to change the effective date section, ensuring the anti-retaliation provision goes into effect January 1, 2022,” Fox said.

“These amendments are designed to help streamline the new … worker protection section and make sure that anyone who attempts to assert their rights within the title is protected from retaliation by the new year.”

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), who joined Garza as co-sponsor, said he’s proud to champion “sensible worker protections, particularly during this pandemic” and prouder still to be “cleaning up this ordinance to make sure that it really is what it needs to be to protect domestic workers and all the workers in Chicago.”

After the vote, Ramirez-Rosa told the Sun-Times protecting domestic employees from retaliation is particularly important because enforcement will be complaint-driven, and it’ll be easier for homeowners to get away with punishing their employees than it would be in a city-inspected workplace.

“We know that all types of workers are subject to retaliation any time they step up and assert their rights. We just want to make sure that domestic workers, who are an important part of our workforce, are protected in this way as well,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

“To become more pro-active, you would have to staff the Office of Labor Standards with more individuals. Folks in the workers rights community would like to see a bigger office. But for now, it’s a complaint-driven process.”

The Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection has tried to make it easier to comply with the contract mandate by posting on her department website a one-page contract that homeowners can download.

New cultural affairs chief OK’d

Also Thursday, the Committee on Special Events, Cultural Affairs & Recreation approved the mayor’s nomination of Erin Harkey as commissioner of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

Harkey has spent the last five years working her way up at DCASE — as project administrator, deputy commissioner for programming and, since March, as first deputy commissioner.

She replaces her newly-retired boss, Mark Kelly, just in time to oversee a $26 million cash infusion in arts and culture included Lightfoot’s 2022 budget to help local artists and venues recover from the pandemic.

That includes a first-ever, $10 million commitment from the city’s corporate fund that, Harkey said, will help shield her department from a repeat of devastating budget cuts tied to its dependency on the hotel tax, which plummeted during the pandemic.

“The last two years in this job have been incredibly hard. The pandemic has absolutely upended the cultural sector,” she said.

“The good news is that, while we have been devastated by this, the resilience of our talented artists and venues, as Chicago’s cultural scene continues to safely reopen, gives us renewed hope for better times ahead.”

Council members praised Harkey’s appointment and welcomed her to what they like to call the “Department of Fun.”

But Ald. Sophia King (4th) also urged Harkey to do a better job of notifying Council members about special events in their wards.

“There were a few times this past year where there were events that were planned that I had no idea about. It caused a lot of confusion. We could have been very helpful to your department on the front end,” King said.

Harkey said she’s considering extending the deadline for applications, to give DCASE “an extra couple of days” to communicate with alderpersons and get their input.

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