- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Lawmakers in Montgomery County unanimously approved legislation Tuesday requiring residents to negotiate a written employment contract spelling out working conditions for domestic workers.

Officials think the measure — aimed at ensuring that domestic workers receive fair wages, overtime and other protections — is the first of its kind nationwide. Advocates said it represents a significant step for an often vulnerable population, many of them immigrant women unaware of their basic rights.

“It sends a very strong message to Montgomery County and the entire nation that they care about domestic workers,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of immigrant advocacy group Casa de Maryland.

The legislation requires employers to offer and sign a written contract with housekeepers, cooks and nannies who work at least 20 hours a week over 30 days or more in their home. The contract would specify such issues as duties, time off, pay and severance. A worker can opt not to sign a contract and still take the job — but the employer would need to provide a waiver signed by an employee to show the contract was presented and declined.

All employers must provide “live-in” help a separate sleeping room with a lock, and reasonable access to a kitchen, bathroom and laundry.

The county’s new measure would not apply to close family members of the employer, certain nursing professionals, au pairs and companions to elderly or disabled people who are not employed by an agency.

“We’re not trying to regulate with a heavy hand here,” said County Council member George Leventhal, a Democrat and chief sponsor of the bill. “It’s the starting point for a conversation. We’re trying to awaken the public to the fact that these people are employees and that they are entitled to be treated as professionals.”

The bill will go before County Executive Isiah Leggett on Friday for his signature. If approved, it would go into effect in six months.

The county’s Office of Consumer Protection would enforce the measure.

County officials noted that it’s not their responsibility to enforce federal immigration law, even though some domestic workers in the county might be illegal immigrants.

“This is about domestic workers; it’s not about immigrant workers,” said Marc Elrich, a Democrat and chief sponsor of bill. “All other questions about who the domestic worker is are irrelevant.”

Mr. Elrich said he hoped the legislation would trigger a broader discussion about worker rights.

The measure grew out of efforts by the Coalition to Support Domestic Workers, a group of organizations formed in 2005. The coalition had rallied county officials to consider a “bill of rights” that would require employers to provide such things as health insurance and a minimum wage of $10.50 an hour. Maryland’s minimum hourly rate is $6.15.

The efforts helped lead to a 2006 study by George Washington University that found that many domestic workers in Montgomery were paid less than the minimum wage and put in more than 40 hours a week without overtime pay, health insurance, vacation or sick leave. The survey of 286 workers found that most were nannies and housekeepers. Spanish was their primary language and more than half did not speak English.

New York City and Nassau County in New York have a code of conduct that outlines legal obligations for employers and workers. But Ai-jen Poo, an organizer with Domestic Workers United in New York City, said it stops short of requiring contracts. Her group is lobbying for a “domestic workers bill of rights” to mandate labor laws in New York.

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