Domestic workers: ‘We’re like the garbage they ask us to clean up’

Immigrant women who work in households speak out about the abuse they've experienced on the job and the Seattle legislation they're hoping will help. 

Gilda Blanco, photographed in Rainier Beach, Seattle in March 2018. (All photos by Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

Approximately five years ago, Gilda Blanco met a man who expressed interest in hiring someone to tidy up his Bellevue home. He painted a picture of his house for her, making it sound luxurious. But when Blanco, a tall and full-figured immigrant from Guatemala, arrived, there was a nurse’s outfit waiting. He grabbed her breasts and ass.

“It’s hard to describe this feeling of anger, hurt and deception when someone looks at you that way. They trick you more than anything, making you think they want a cleaning lady and instead they have this outfit ready for you,” Blanco said in a recent interview in Spanish.

“I thought as a woman I would be able to manage these situations and defend myself, but it’s not like that,” Blanco continued. “It’s harder than you think to confront men, especially when you’re isolated — you don’t know what might happen. You don’t know, and you might even feel like your life is at risk.”

Blanco’s experiences as a domestic worker in the United States, coupled with sexual assault she says she endured back home, have taken their toll. Yet Blanco has rallied. Today, Blanco, 47, is a lead organizer in the movement to establish rights for gardeners, nannies and house cleaners who work locally as domestic workers.

“They know we’re immigrants, they know we’re undocumented, but they still think they have the right to have us there like their property to abuse us,” Blanco said. “Many of these benefits are just humane no matter what type of job you’re doing.”

Black women who are domestic workers, she says, are especially vulnerable.

“They denigrate us and treat us like objects,” Blanco said. “It’s very difficult. It’s a challenge for us to tell society that we are sensitive women who love and feel and have worth. How do you convince society of that when society has already stereotyped you?”

“These stories and anger stay dormant inside you,” Blanco said, in tears. “There’s no one who will listen to us. And society tells you you’re old enough to know better.”

Gilda Blanco, photographed in Rainier Beach, Seattle in March 2018.

There are approximately 33,000 domestic workers in the Seattle area. Most domestic workers, except for minors, casual laborers and "companions" (individuals who provide fellowship and companionship to the elderly and persons with disabilities) are protected under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, which sets federal standards, including minimum wages and overtime, regardless of a person’s immigration status. The problem, experts say, is many employers do not enforce the law, sometimes simply out of ignorance. And many domestic workers feel like they don't know their rights or have nowhere to turn when violations do occur.

In an effort to better protect domestic workers, the Seattle City Council unveiled a draft of new legislation on Thursday. Only eight states have passed legislation guaranteeing domestic workers certain rights in the workplace: New York, Hawaii, Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Oregon, Illinois and Nevada. The Domestic Workers' New York Bill of Rights, signed in 2010 and the first of its kind in the country, established overtime pay, several paid days off per year, one full day of rest per week, and protection against sexual harassment and assault.

Seattle's proposed legislation would guarantee a minimum wage for domestic workers, excluding live-in workers. Domestic workers would also be guaranteed regular rest breaks. The legislation also proposes establishing a Domestic Workers Standards Board, which would be significant because, historically, domestic workers have been excluded from the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA allows employees to unionize and negotiate for better workplace conditions. It was passed during the New Deal era when, in response to the Great Depression, the government introduced numerous programs. But Southern legislators fought to exclude certain individuals — domestic workers among them — to maintain control over cheap, Black labor.

The nine-member Domestic Workers Board would include domestic workers, employers and community representatives. It would offer training on labor laws and education about discrimination and sexual harassment. It would attempt to set up access to paid sick leave and family leave, retirement, health and other benefits through a leave bank or portable benefit account to which an employer and employee could contribute.

The legislation would also establish penalties against employers who use an employee’s undocumented status as leverage.

Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda during a vote to repeal the head tax at City Hall in Seattle, June 12, 2018. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight)
Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda during a vote to repeal the head tax at City Hall in Seattle. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who has been at the forefront of the fight to protect domestic workers in the region, helped write the legislation. “What we’re trying to do in Seattle is to make sure that all domestic workers actually have the protections that we would assume any worker in our community gets,” Mosqueda said.

“If you think about who this population is, they’re really the most vulnerable workers: women, people of color, immigrants. And as a woman, as a person of color, as someone who didn’t grow up, you know, historically wealthy, I want to make sure we’re investing in these workers just like we would every other worker.”

Referencing Seattle’s recent business tax debacle, Mosqueda also added: “I think the city needs something less controversial,” she said. “And right now, there’s lots of interest in moving this forward.”

Community organizer and domestic worker Silvia González poses for a portrait at Casa Latina in Seattle in April 2018.

A recent survey by the Seattle Domestic Workers Alliance queried 174 domestic workers in the city. It found most are having difficulty making ends meet. The survey found people of color earned less than their White counterparts. The majority also lack health insurance and many work without other benefits, such as paid sick days. 

Despite the low wages, most domestic workers are not young or new to the workforce. The report found the average age among surveyed domestic workers was 39. Of these workers, 18 percent have been harassed or abused at work, and 17 percent have experienced sexual harassment or assault at work, with a higher proportion of workers of color — 32 percent compared to 4 percent of White workers — experiencing abuse.

Community organizer and domestic worker Silvia Gonzalez poses for a portrait at Casa Latina in Seattle on Tuesday, April 10, 2018.
Community organizer and domestic worker Silvia González at Casa Latina in Seattle, April 2018.

Silvia González knows the daily insecurities domestic workers live with. She’s a leader at the local nonprofit Casa Latina and is a domestic worker. For years, González juggled two jobs — she cleaned houses and worked a minimum-wage gig at the sandwich chain Quiznos — to earn extra cash to help put her daughter through Washington State University.

“I came to the United States so that she would get a better education. To come and not work hard for what you came here for? There’s no point. You left everything behind. Your family, your culture, your country,” González, who is originally from Mexico, explained in a recent interview in Spanish.

González, who leads a women’s group at Casa Latina, says she hears a lot of complaints about being injured on the job. “We deal with it, but later we realize that what we thought was nothing could be something serious,” adding that many workers, in addition to losing wages from forced time off, are left to pay medical bills.

Kassandra Gonzalez Espinoza, photographed in her apartment in White Center on March 17, 2018.
Kassandra González Espinoza photographed in her apartment in White Center in Seattle in March 2018.
Take, for example, domestic worker Kassandra González Espinoza. Espinoza, 49, works part-time cleaning and as a nanny. By sharing a modest one-bedroom apartment in White Center with her husband — plants and Aztec religious imagery overflow the living room — she manages to just make ends meet. About a year ago, Espinoza slipped while mopping the floor, breaking her client’s $300 Italian fruit bowl. “She didn’t even ask me if I was OK,” Espinoza said. “She was concerned about her bowl from Italy and that I pay for it.”

Espinoza also suspects if she wasn’t transgender she might be treated more fairly. “Sometimes things are just obvious, you don’t need anyone to say them directly to you or demonstrate,” she said. “Nobody is going to tell you directly, we don’t want you because you’re transgender.”

Still, Espinoza considers herself among the more fortunate: Unlike some of her colleagues, she emigrated from Mexico but is now a U.S. citizen, which she believes gives her more agency to protest. “There’s a lot of housekeepers who are abused," Espinoza said. They "either don’t speak English or they are undocumented and don’t say anything. And now with the new president it’s even less likely they’ll speak up,” she said, referring to President Donald Trump. “So there’s a lot of people who will take advantage of that, of the fear. So who is going to protect us?”

Etelbina Hauser, photographed in Rainier Beach, Seattle in March 2018.

Etelbina Hauser, 56, a native of Honduras, tells a story about one day cleaning a couple’s home when the husband asked for toilet paper. Although Hauser found the request strange, she followed orders. When she opened the door, standing before her was a man with an erection. “He was completely naked with a smile that said, ‘hey, I’m here and ready,’” Hauser said in a recent interview in Spanish, shaking and near tears. Hauser flung the toilet paper at him, grabbed her things and left. When she called his wife to explain why she would no longer be working for them, Hauser was accused of lying.

Etelbina Hauser, photographed in Rainier Beach, Seattle
Etelbina Hauser, photographed in Rainier Beach, Seattle.

In another incident, after distributing fliers advertising her cleaning services, she was approached by a man who she soon realized was not interested in cleaning but in sex. “I trembled like an idiot,” Hauser recalled. She fled to a nearby payphone to call a friend to pick her up. At that point, Hauser wondered: “What’s wrong with me? Why do things of this nature keep happening to me?”

Today, Hauser, who is stout with a gentle demeanor and sports tiny, gold hoop earrings, works for clients she says are “good people.” But her experiences have made her an advocate for domestic workers. “There’s a lot of women out there, women who are looked down upon by some people, ‘Oh, look, she’s a worker, we can do what we want with her,’” Hauser said. “We’re like the garbage they ask us to clean up.”

“Nobody pays attention to us. Nobody believes us. They try to intimidate us instead,” Hauser said. “Where is the dignity and the respect? That’s what we’re trying to reclaim.”

“I hope other women who have experienced what I’ve experienced share their stories, too, that they come out of the shadows and stop being afraid.”

Emily Dills, founder of the Seattle Nanny Network, is enthusiastic about the draft legislation. But she says the majority of her clients aren’t wealthy — just busy moms juggling kids and work. Dills understands why some employees might be resistant to the new rules — worrying new regulations could make household helpers too expensive to hire. “I think people are looking to economize in any way they can,” Dills said.   

Mosqueda, for her part, has a personal stake in this issue. Her 68-year-old mother-in-law continues to work part-time as a domestic worker, helping care for two children.

“I think we ought to be . . . making sure those who are taking care of our kiddos and our elders are taken care of,” Mosqueda said.

Moreover, she said the #MeToo movement has galvanized women to speak out about sexual harassment and abuse.

“The timing couldn’t be more important."

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About the Authors & Contributors

Lilly Fowler

Lilly Fowler

Lilly Fowler is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where she focused on race, immigration and other issues.