Workplace abuse and worker exploitation in Colorado’s invisible workforce
Domestic workers work without boundaries. They work unpredictable hours without breaks, without overtime pay, without sick leave and vacation. Their work is not limited to the job description nor bound by a contract. And most importantly, their work is not bound by federal or state regulations—no protections and no rights lead to limitless opportunities for exploitation. These issues were key findings in research studies in New York and California and now Colorado.
Following the lead of studies conducted in the other states, researchers from the University of Colorado Denver initiated this analysis to measure the experiences of domestic workers in Colorado. Surveying more than 410 workers from 25 different countries, the study exposes a need to impose boundaries through federal, state and local regulation—extending these rights to all workers. The results of this study were presented at El Centro Humanitario in Denver on Friday, Dec. 3, 2010, and strategy was discussed in regard to an action plan for a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights campaign.
“This study shows that Colorado domestic workers— most of whom are women of color—face profound workplace abuse and exploitation that violates both the law and basic standards of human decency,” said Tony Robinson, PhD, associate professor of Political Science at theCollege of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Colorado Denver, and lead author of the study. “Domestic workers commonly are paid less than minimum wage, rarely are paid overtime, are regularly exposed to hazards such as being required to sleep in unheated or unventilated rooms, and many are even physically and sexually abused. This kind of abuse is legalized and institutionalized when labor laws specifically exclude domestic workers from protection and due to a culture that devalues and dehumanizes working women of color. The report calls on Colorado to follow the lead of other states such as New York and pass new legislation to protect these extremely vulnerable workers in our community.”
Domestic workers are specifically excluded from many legal protections, including the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act minimum wage rules and Title VII sexual harassment protections, providing opportunity for wage theft and exploitation as laws protecting workers stop at the front door of the home. Colorado state law also specifically excludes domestic workers from state minimum wage and maximum hour rules and from mandatory rest periods for breaks and meals.
Some of the findings of the study include:
• 90 percent of domestic workers are women, 70 percent are non-white, and 40 percent are immigrants.
• 33 percent work more than 40 hours a week and 8 percent work more than 60 hours a week, commonly for 6-7 days a week, yet only 33 percent of workers ever receive overtime pay.
• 42 percent earn less than minimum wage, with many earning less than $5.00 an hour.
• 40 percent have had wages unilaterally withheld by an employer and 27 percent are frequently paid late.
• 49 percent endure physical or verbal abuse from employers and 9 percent have been sexually abused.
• 6 percent are provided with health insurance and 65 percent have had to skip medical care for their own family due to inability to pay for care.
• 18 percent of immigrant domestic workers have been asked to hand over their passport to their employer so that they could be kept from quitting work (among immigrants).
• 11 percent of all live-in domestic workers and 30 percent of immigrant domestic workers are forced to sleep in unhealthy locations (e.g., no windows, no ventilation or heat); 62 percent of live-in domestic workers are only provided a common area to sleep in such as the living room or sleeping with the children.
This was the first in-depth study on Colorado domestic workers presented to the public. The study, co-authored by Robinson and two CU Denver graduate students, Jessie Dryden and Heather Gomez-Duplantis, was funded by the Women’s Foundation of Colorado.