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Proposed New Protections for Domestic Workers Headed for Vote in New Jersey Senate

The Senate Budget Committee unanimously approved a raft of new protections for domestic workers Thursday, ending a year-long stasis and putting the bill on a path to a full floor vote in the upper chamber.

The bill would extend new rights — including protections on privacy, wages, and working conditions — to a bevy of domestic workers, including those who provide child care, housekeeping, or in-home caretaking, among others.

“The demand for domestic workers is projected to surge over the coming years as the country’s population continues to age and the need for home health and personal care aids increases,” said Sen. Dick Codey (D-Essex), the bill’s prime sponsor. “We must ensure these workers are treated humanely and afforded the same respect as all workers are entitled to, especially given the essential and necessary care and support they provide to New Jersey families.”

The legislation would end a carveout that excludes domestic workers from the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and one in the state’s wage and hour law that allows part-time workers providing child care in their employer’s home to be paid less than the state’s minimum wage.

The bill would extend a prohibition on non-disclosure agreements for domestic workers to include non-compete agreements, which generally bar workers from seeking similar work from a different employer for a period of years.

It would also codify requirements that domestic workers receive at least one paid 10-minute break for every four consecutive hours of work and require 30-minute lunch breaks unless the nature of the domestic work precludes breaks, as it might for some in-home caregivers.

Steve Way, an actor and disability rights advocate who has muscular dystrophy, told the panel that domestic workers had helped him maintain an independent lifestyle, and he urged the panel to pass the bill, lamenting that those workers see lower pay and fewer protections than counterparts in most every other economic sector.

“It’s not just unfair. It’s unjust and cruel,” he said.

Under the bill, employers would be barred from requiring live-in domestic workers to work for more than six consecutive days without a day off, and they would be forced to give domestic workers two-week notice — or four weeks for live-in workers — before terminating employment, with exceptions for employee misconduct.

It would also make sharp increases to the civil penalties allowed under provisions of the state’s Worker Health and Safety Act, raising penalties charged on unsafe workplaces from between $25 and $500 to between $975 and $13,653. The bill would allow the state’s labor commissioner to tweak those levels to keep them in line with penalties set by federal law.

Half of any such penalty would be paid to the affected worker, and the bill would require employers to provide domestic workers with a contract.

“You take care of our families. You take care of our children. You are part of the fabric of economic development in this state, and sometimes and somehow — still when we have conversations, people want to pretend that these ecosystems that make us thrive don’t exist,” Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) said before casting a yes vote.

The bill would also bar employers from keeping copies of domestic workers’ documents and bar them from observing or filming their activities in bathrooms, their living quarters, and while dressing.

Witnesses told the panel many of the state’s domestic workers are immigrants, including some who are undocumented.

The bill would further remove antiquated portions of state law, including provisions that contain language saying the term “employer” is synonymous with “master” and references to “servants,” among some others.

It’s unclear when the Assembly will take up the bill. Committees in the lower chamber approved earlier versions of the legislation last October but have not acted on it since. The bill did not appear on the agenda for a Monday meeting of the Assembly Appropriations Committee as of Thursday afternoon.

Source: New Jersey Monitor