Wage Theft, Workplace Injuries, and No Sick Time: Report Uncovers Exploitation of New Jersey's Domestic Workers
Wednesday, Sep 23, 2020

PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Many of the women who clean homes and care for New Jersey’s children and seniors are laboring through rampant exploitation, according to a report released today by the Rutgers Center for Women and Work in partnership with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and its affiliates. The findings point to the need for a statewide Domestic Worker Bill of Rights to establish basic labor standards and protect those who are afraid to speak up about mistreatment.

“Housecleaners, nannies, and home health aides are essential workers to the individuals and families who rely upon them for care and support,” said Debra Lancaster, executive director of the Rutgers Center for Women and Work. “These women are essential to our economy, yet they work within one of the most unregulated industries in the country. When they run into problems at work, which is not unusual, they have little in the way of a safety net.”

New Jersey’s more than 60,000 domestic workers are overwhelmingly women (97%) and more than half are non-white (60%) and immigrants (52%). Domestic workers are among the lowest-paid workers in the state, and they are exempt from basic legal protections under federal labor laws and OSHA. They are typically employed by agencies or work directly for individuals and families. About a third of New Jerseyans have hired a domestic worker at one point.

To learn about their working conditions, four community-based organizations affiliated with NDWA—Adhikaar, Casa Freehold, New Labor, and Wind of the Spirit—trained 30 women to conduct detailed, in-person surveys with more than 400 domestic workers across New Jersey in 2019. The Rutgers Center for Women and Work then analyzed the findings. They reveal:

  • Most domestic workers are paid in cash (86%) and do not have a written contract (90%).
  • More than half of the workers (57%) have been victims of wage theft. This happens when the employer withholds all or some of their pay, including not paying overtime.
  • Many workers have no health insurance (54%) and no paid sick or vacation time (49%). Close to a third of workers said their employer refused to grant even unpaid sick time.
  • Health and safety issues are a major concern for domestic workers (44%), and some have been injured on the job (17%). Few received workplace safety training (10%).
  • Work-related muscle or joint pain (47%), headaches (34%), eye or skin irritation (21%), stress and anxiety (19%), insomnia (18%), and breathing difficulty (12%) are common.
  • Unstable scheduling affects many domestic workers (18%). Without reliable hours each week, it’s difficult to arrange childcare, medical appointments, or work a second job.
  • Though domestic workers often cook meals as part of their duties, some do not get a lunch break for themselves (19%).

“Domestic workers are an integral part of our communities and their numbers are growing in the workforce, but this survey shows that they need more protection and additional ways to access existing workplace benefits," said Elaine Zundl, research director of the Rutgers Center for Women and Work. “"The pandemic has made the situation even more dire. COVID-19 led to sudden unemployment for many domestic workers, while leaving others on the front lines without basic health and safety protections."

Despite knowing their rights, the domestic workers in the survey rarely came forward to report violations such as wage theft. That’s typically because they did not know how to file a complaint (23%) or did not know they could (22%). Other common reasons included fear of termination (20%), a language barrier (18%), or concerns about their immigration status (10%). 

Worker centers are helping to bridge the gap by providing health and safety education, information about workplace rights, and assistance with filing complaints. But advocates believe a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights is the best way to protect New Jersey’s domestic workers from continued exploitation. Ten states, including New York, and two municipalities have such a law.

“It is imperative that domestic workers be treated as essential workers and have the labor rights to protect them from wage theft, discrimination, and workplace injuries,” said Virgilio Aran, national organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “Our hope is to introduce the New Jersey Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in early 2021 and for it to be passed immediately.”

The Rutgers Center for Women and Work, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and its affiliates are recommending a bill of rights that:

  • Guarantees a minimum wage, overtime, health and safety protections, workers’ compensation, and paid time-off;
  • Creates a portable benefits system with health insurance, paid family and sick leave, disability and unemployment insurance, and retirement benefits;
  • Extends health and safety protections to domestic workers, including COVID standards;
  • Co-enforces labor standards by teaming-up domestic worker organizations and the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development;
  • Targets high-violation employers through strategic enforcement; and
  • Creates a Worker Standards Board enabling domestic workers to set policy and raise industry standards.

Research Note
The Fund for New Jersey and the National Domestic Workers Alliance supported this research.

Press Contact
Steve Flamisch
Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations
848.252.9011 (cell) 

About the School
The Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR) is the world’s leading source of expertise on managing and representing workers, designing effective organizations, and building strong employment relationships. SMLR’s Center for Women and Work engages in research, education, and programming that promotes economic and social equity for women workers, their families and communities.

About National Domestic Workers Alliance
National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) is the leading voice for dignity and fairness for millions of domestic workers in the United States. Founded in 2007, NDWA works for respect, recognition and inclusion in labor protections for domestic workers, the majority of whom are immigrants and women of color. NDWA is powered by over 60 affiliate organizations and local chapters and by a growing membership base of nannies, house cleaners and care workers in over 20 states. NDWA has created Alia, an online platform to help domestic workers access benefits, not otherwise granted to them, in addition to proposing a National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights with Senator Kamala Harris and Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal.