By Jason Kerzinski, The Real News
As of Jan. 1, 2022, a new ordinance took effect in Chicago aimed at bringing much-needed accountability to an industry that has been, by and large, treated as part of the informal economy: domestic work. Domestic work covers a range of jobs, from nannies and home-caregivers to home cleaners, but domestic workers themselves—the majority of whom are people of color and the vast majority of whom are women—are not protected by most labor laws and are frequently subjected to rampant wage theft and harassment. The Chicago ordinance requires employers to provide workers, regardless of their immigration status, with written contracts codifying mutually agreed terms of employment, including wages, work schedule, and scope of responsibilities. Contracts must be provided in the worker’s preferred language and be reviewed annually, or whenever there’s a change in job duties.
The historic mandate was issued by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection on December 29, 2021, making Chicago the largest city in the country to require written contracts for domestic workers. The provisions in the Chicago ordinance expand on protections established in the 2016 Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, ensuring that domestic workers receive a minimum wage of $15 per hour, protection against sexual harassment, and the right to a day of rest if they work for more than 20 hours for an employer.
There are more than 56,000 domestic workers in the Chicago metro area, according to a 2020 study by the Economic Policy Institute. The study also shows that more than 90% of Chicago-area domestic workers are women, about half are either Black or Latina, and roughly 38% are immigrants.
The provisions in the Chicago ordinance expand on protections established in the 2016 Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, ensuring that domestic workers receive a minimum wage of $15 per hour, protection against sexual harassment, and the right to a day of rest if they work for more than 20 hours for an employer.
Like every gain workers have made in the fight for dignity, fairness, better treatment and pay, safer working conditions, etc., the Chicago ordinance and the Illinois Domestic Workers Bill of Rights were not philanthropically bequeathed from the halls of power—they were won through protracted struggle. Arise Chicago, a member-based worker organization, has long pushed for the new ordinance by building partnerships between faith communities and workers in an effort to fight workplace injustice through education, organizing, and advocating for policy changes.
“We celebrate [this] milestone in improving the working conditions and increasing recognition of the profession of nannies, care workers, and home cleaners in Chicago,” Ania Jakubek, a domestic worker organizer with Arise, told TRNN. “As of January 1, 2022,” she continued,
“all domestic workers in Chicago have the right to a written contract. This is one of the first such protections in the entire country, and makes Chicago the largest city with a contract requirement! As a former nanny myself, I couldn’t be more excited. In order to make sure all Chicago nannies, caregivers, and home cleaners not only know about this new right, but also have the support to create their first contract, Arise Chicago launched a new Domestic Worker Outreach Program. Our domestic worker members are now leading trainings and providing 1-on-1 support to workers on creating their own contracts.”
To understand why the passing of this ordinance is so significant, and what it means for the lives and families of domestic workers in the city, I spoke directly with a number of Arise members, who represent a fraction of the tens of thousands of domestic workers whose lives will be impacted by the new industry standards the ordinance has put in place.
For The Real News, I asked eleven members of Arise Chicago, “Can you describe the work you do and how the domestic contract requirement will benefit you as a worker?” Here’s what they said…
MARIA DEL CONSUELO RODRIGUEZ
I am currently working as a nanny in the nanny-share system for three families.
“[P]reviously, employers made employees work longer than they agreed—for the same salary. Sometimes they did not stipulate what the responsibilities were and, therefore, they abused our labor.”
– MARIA DEL CONSUELO RODRIGUEZ, DOMESTIC WORKER AND ARISE CHICAGO MEMBER
With the first family, I started when the little girl was five days old. Currently, she is two years and two months old. With the second little girl, she was two and a half months old when I started, and now she is 19 months old. The third little girl arrived when she was 3 years old, and today she is three years and five months old.
My job is to feed them their breakfasts, snacks, and meals (which are prepared by the mother of the first girl); in emergencies, I prepare meals. When the weather allows it, we go to parks, the zoo, and take long walks. At home we play, sing, dance, draw, do art class projects, and many other things.
I also put them down for their naps. I do this work eight hours a day, five days a week.
The contract requirement will mainly benefit me by preventing employer abuses toward us as workers. That is to say, previously, employers made employees work longer than they agreed—for the same salary. Sometimes they did not stipulate what the responsibilities were and, therefore, they abused our labor.
In 2020 I lost part of my job cleaning houses, now I only do this part-time. Due to the fact that I cannot afford to work part-time, because I would not be able to support myself, I had to find a second part-time job taking care of the elderly.
In 2020, when we all learned about the outbreak of the pandemic, all my jobs were canceled overnight and I was practically destitute because I had not had a contract with anyone for years. A properly written contract not only protects me, but it also sets the hours and days of work, the frequency and scope of duties, non-working days, which days will be paid or not, and determines the paid or unpaid vacation time. It is very important for me to sleep well and know that I can go to work tomorrow and I will not be sent back without payment at the last minute. I also sincerely hope that someday it will be possible to add contributions that the employer is obliged to pay into a retirement plan for domestic workers.
“In 2020, when we all learned about the outbreak of the pandemic, all my jobs were canceled overnight and I was practically destitute because I had not had a contract with anyone for years.”
– MAGDALENA ZYLINSKA, DOMESTIC WORKER AND ARISE CHICAGO MEMBER
Fulfilling the contract requirement is extremely important to me because I can sleep peacefully at night and not worry that someone will suddenly cancel work for me tomorrow and I will be left without a means to live. All the described working hours and duties cannot be changed or added without the appropriate surcharge, because you can always refer to the contract, in which everything was carefully written. All additional shifts should be documented thoroughly to help the worker in case any problems come up. This is a huge mental relief for many domestic workers, not just me. Now we can sleep more peacefully and not worry so much about whether we can go to work tomorrow and whether we will be paid for this work.
I am working in the two-week system, which means that I clean 17 different homes in a two-week period. Some clients need me every week and some just once every two weeks.
Before starting my work at a particular home, I check the notes—where and what the employer expects from me on a given day. When I come to work, the first thing I do is go to where the client has the cleaning products and where I have a place to put my things. Most often I start working on the upper floor of the house in the main bathroom, then I clean the rooms one by one going downstairs. Sometimes I’ll start cleaning in the kitchen, because that’s what the employers and I agreed to earlier. At the end of work, I always clean the vacuum cleaner, check the cleaning agents, and leave a message about what I need for the next time.
It seems to me that signing a contract with an employer is very important because we will avoid a conflict regarding the pay, especially paying overtime, as well as canceling work at the last minute and not paying for it.
I work cleaning different spaces. Regularly I do more cleaning in offices, businesses, and schools, but also in houses and apartments.
The contracts will serve me to know the specifics of where and what I am cleaning. It is very useful to have a contract, so that the clients can’t take advantage of us when they want us to do more work or more cleaning than we originally agreed to.
I am a nanny on a daily basis. I have been doing this work for over 24 years. Currently I am taking care of a little boy.
“The contract brings a sense of worth and satisfaction to my life knowing that I am treated with dignity. The contract also provides a kind of life stabilization. I do not have to get frustrated by surprises and changes to my working conditions without the employer having to fix it with me.”
– EDYTA GOLDA, DOMESTIC WORKER AND ARISE CHICAGO MEMBER
A written contract between my employers and me, as an employed person, brings smooth working conditions, guaranteed permanent wages, and partial benefits such as paid holidays, a few sick days, and paid days when employers are away from work and do not need me.
The contract brings a sense of worth and satisfaction to my life knowing that I am treated with dignity. The contract also provides a kind of life stabilization. I do not have to get frustrated by surprises and changes to my working conditions without the employer having to fix it with me.
I am an immigrant in this country, from Peru. I have worked for 17 years as a nanny in the US. I have worked in four private homes, each for over four years in a row, and I have cared for newborns and children up to 13 years old. In two of those families, there are three children. I have worked in downtown Chicago and the suburbs of Oak Park and River Forest. Currently I am working as a teacher’s assistant in the infant’s room at a Montessori school. I am trying to learn and improve my experience caring for children.
A contract that is negotiated between the nanny and the family where she works is important and essential because it protects your rights and specifies the details of your responsibilities. A contract provides economic security and emotional stability. A contract reviewed by both the nanny and the family specifies your rate of pay, benefits, and detailed work duties. It is also a good reference to have if you are trying to obtain educational scholarships or update your certifications from training programs or colleges to become a teacher in the future. This is my goal—to become an elementary school teacher.
“I am an immigrant in this country, from Peru. I have worked for 17 years as a nanny in the US. I have worked in four private homes, each for over four years in a row, and I have cared for newborns and children up to 13 years old.”
– KATHY VALDIVIA, DOMESTIC WORKER AND ARISE CHICAGO MEMBER
As a domestic worker, I do various jobs on a daily basis: housekeeping and caregiving.
Contracts between me and my employers define my duties and the salary I expect. The contract gives me a sense of security because it contains the entire outline of my duties and is shared between me and my employer.
I take care of children.
The contract is important for me as a domestic worker. It supports my rights and prevents more abuses. Now that we have a work contract, it is a great benefit. Thanks to the contract, we have certain rights and benefits that we have had in the past, but employers would not always follow the rules—or they would abuse them. For example, we would have excessive workloads without breaks or work longer hours than were agreed upon, and all for low wages without the right to file a complaint.
I worked for 29 years cleaning homes in downtown Chicago.
During the pandemic I lost all of my clients. Because of my advanced age, I decided not to look for new jobs. I took the Contract Specialist training with Arise to teach other workers about their rights and how to create a contract, because I like to support other workers. With more information they will achieve better results and have the opportunity for more benefits and protections than I did.
My work is cleaning homes and taking care of children.
“The new contract law is a great support because it values my work and my time.”
– LEONOR ARELLANO, DOMESTIC WORKER AND ARISE CHICAGO MEMBER
The new contract law is a great support because it values my work and my time. It guarantees a fair agreement for both me and my employer. I am able to work in harmony knowing there is fairness for both of us.
In my job I assist elderly people with their daily tasks, such as: preparing their meals, washing their clothes, cleaning their homes, taking them to the doctor and the store, and, if necessary, helping them to bathe. These are my tasks, but above all I try to bring them a little happiness and listen to them when they share their experiences and memories. I am positive and happy when I am with them. It helps them a lot to have someone they can trust and to share their stories at this stage of their lives, when they feel most abandoned and when they need the most help.
“Fulfilling the contract requirement is extremely important to me because I can sleep peacefully at night and not worry that someone will suddenly cancel work for me tomorrow and I will be left without a means to live. All the described working hours and duties cannot be changed or added without the appropriate surcharge, because you can always refer to the contract.”
– MARIA DEL CONSUELO RODRIGUEZ, DOMESTIC WORKER AND ARISE CHICAGO MEMBER
I think it is very important to have a contract between the worker and employer because it is very convenient for both parties and helps avoid future problems. When any detail arises that was not included in the contract previously, if both sides agree, it can be added. What I think is important to be included from the beginning is: work schedule, wages, vacation days, and very well defined work tasks.