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Domestic workers hail new law that includes wage, OT protections

"I struggled to get by because of low wages, wage theft and disrespect on the job," said Arise Chicago board member Magdalena Zylinska, who has worked as a house cleaner, nanny and caregiver. | Angie Stewart/Sun-Times

As a nanny, Maria Esther Bolaños worked 11-hour days for just over one dollar an hour.

Bolaños endured the poor conditions for two months in the early 2000s, a time when Illinois’ domestic workers, as they had been for decades, remained unprotected by minimum wage laws.

For two years after that, she worked 8-hour days in domestic jobs, still making a meager $8 a day. She worked several jobs to support herself and her family, including cleaning restaurants at night.

“It was impossible for me to continue on,” she said, standing among a coalition of domestic workers at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.

Now, Bolaños cleans houses for $12 an hour.

She is a member of the Latino Union, which joined AFIRE Chicago and Arise Chicago at a press conference Tuesday to celebrate a law five years in the making: one that gives nannies, cleaners, household workers and other domestic employees the same rights as other laborers.

Maria Esther Bolaños looks at Gaby Benitez, organizer for the Illinois Domestic Workers Coalition, who helped translate Bolaños' remarks at Tuesday's news conference. | Angie Stewart/Sun-Times

Maria Esther Bolaños looks at Gaby Benitez, organizer for the Illinois Domestic Workers Coalition, who helped translate Bolaños’ remarks at Tuesday’s news conference. | Angie Stewart/Sun-Times

The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, originally didn’t cover household employees, such as cooks or maids. The law’s protections were expanded to “domestic service” workers in 1974, but even then, the law still included some exemptions from wage and overtime rules for many workers, including companions for the elderly as well as for live-in domestic workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

But now, the Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which Gov. Bruce Rauner signed Friday, will grant domestic workers a minimum wage, protection against sexual harassment, and one day of rest per week, starting Jan. 1.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Ira Silverstein (D-8th), as well as House Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez (D-24th), who said the law affords “basic rights” to domestic workers, the majority of whom are female.

“Now we need to make sure that all domestic workers know their rights and that the employers know their responsibilities under the new law,” said Magdalena Zylinska, a housecleaner and board member of Arise Chicago who has previously worked as a nanny and caregiver. “So, our work at Arise and with our coalition will continue.”

Speaking in Spanish, Bolaños said domestic workers have finally won the dignity they deserve.

“Our work is essential for the families we work for, but those hours and the work we put in are not reflected in our economy,” said Bolaños. “A lot of us women, a lot of us domestic workers have come out of the shadows … our invisibility is no longer. So for that, we must continue fighting.”