For more than 10 years, Telma Gutierrez said she slept on the floor of a small closet along ironing boards, clothes and hangers while working as a live-in housekeeper.
Gutierrez said she worked for more than 14-hours a day, taking care of children, cleaning a three-bedroom two-living-room house, raising and killing chickens, taking care of and feeding more than 100 bunnies, and planting and picking tomatoes, while earning $4 per hour without any overtime pay.
On April 25, Assembly Bill 2536 providing overtime compensation for domestic workers passed the Labor Committee on a 6-2 vote and is waiting to be heard by the Appropriations Committee in the following weeks.
The bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Cindy Monta?ez, indicates that domestic workers have the right to overtime compensation and the right to claim double their salary if they are not paid for the work that they have completed.
These are problems that a lot of the house workers face, said Juana Nicolas, head of the Domestic Workers Organizing and Advocacy Project for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA).
“A lot of the workers that get hired end up not getting paid,” she said. “The patrones find any excuse to fire them without paying for the work and overtime that they have already done.”
At the moment there is no law stating that domestic workers are to be paid overtime, said Rocky Rushing, chief of staff for Monta?ez.
Currently, Nicolas and other domestic workers go door to door, distributing flyers on bus stops, and host workshops on university campuses asking for public support. Their goal is to educate the public on the abuse housecleaners face on a daily basis, and on the proposed bill that if passed will support them.
“We give them our personal testimonials on the abuses that we face in hope that they will support our cause,” Nicolas said. “We want them to call and write to the politicians and ask them to support our bill.”
Nicolas has been working on this bill for more than a year. Along with two other domestic workers, they presented Monta?ez with their testimonials and asked her to join their cause a year ago.
“We went to touch her heart so that she would take notice of our struggle,” Nicolas said.
Nicolas said Monta?ez sympathized with their movement and agreed to support them. She believes Monta?ez identified with their cause because her mom used to be a domestic worker.
Nicolas, a former house worker, still identifies as one. She considers herself a part of them.
She said that to stop believing that she is a housecleaner is to stop being who she is and feeling what she feels.
“Who I am and what I feel is what keeps me alive and ready to fight against the injustices done to women,” Nicolas said. “Being anything (other) than that wouldn’t be me.”
The idea for a law that would protect house workers emerged from the abuse and exploitation Nicolas and other domestic workers (who make up the Domestic Workers Organizing and Advocacy Project) endured while working as housecleaners and from the need to form an organized movement, Nicolas said.
“A lot of the women who work as domestic workers are paid well under the established minimum wage,” Nicolas said. “They (the bosses) abuse them by making them work up to 17 hour shifts for one, two, three, up o four dollars an hour.”
If approved, AB 2536 will protect documented and undocumented domestic workers, Nicolas said.
“If documented house workers suffer such abuse imagine how much more the undocumented population suffers,” she said.
Reyna Figueroa, a documented house worker said that a law that protects all workers against exploitation regardless of their legal status is essential.
“There have to be laws that protect us,” Figueroa said. “If there aren’t any, people think that they have the right to abuse us.”
Thirty-year-old Figueroa, like Gutierrez, said she was a victim of exploitation at the workplace. Figueroa said she would work for up to nine hours a day without eating.
“They would treat me real bad,” Figueroa said. “They wouldn’t allow me to eat; they would never let me eat.”
Not being allowed to eat was not the only abuse Figueroa was exposed to.
When Figueroa began working for the family, she said she was hired only to clean the house. As the days went by her, however, work load began to increase. Soon she was expected to care for the children, take them and pick them up from school, shop grocery shopping and wash their car. Figueroa said she was never reimbursed for the gasoline her car used while running errands for them nor paid overtime for the many times she stayed late to complete the extra housework tasks.
Even though she only worked at that household for two months, she said she was tired of being subjugated and decided to quit her job.
“I had had it,” Figueroa said. “I was never paid on time, the work was too much for too little pay, and the overtime that I put in was never paid.”
When she quit her job, her bosses owed her two weeks worth of work she said.
“I didn’t know where to go or what to do,” Figueroa said. “I just figured I had lost the money.”
Not too long after quitting her job, Figueroa went to the CHIRLA offices and filed a complaint against her patrones.
“I went because I deserve to get the money that I worked so hard for,” she said. “But most important I want to see justice done not just for me but for all of the house workers that face similar situations.”
Gutierrez, an undocumented worker, said she also endured working under such harsh conditions for almost 11 years because she had a family to support.
“I always wanted my daughters to have a good education,” Gutierrez said. “I wanted to help my parents with the little that I could,” she said.
Her parents and daughters live in Guatemala and they do not earn enough, she said. The little she contributes, helps pay for rent and food.
“With what I send, they are able to make ends meet,” Gutierrez said.
The 44-year-old said another reason she stayed there so long was because she knew that being undocumented prevented her from doing or saying anything. This was because her patrona (boss) would constantly remind her that due to her illegal status she had no right to have a voice or an opinion in this country. She was told that if she expressed them, there would be consequences.
Gutierrez said she never really complained. After about seven years of working under those conditions, she finally realized that the treatment was getting worse. She talked to la se?ora (the lady of the house) and asked her for a raise to cover for the extra tasks. But la se?ora said no. Gutierrez said she didn’t agree to her demands and didn’t give her a raise, nor lessen her workload. Instead, she demanded her to show up to work earlier the next day to have enough time to prepare breakfast, a new added duty on her list of never endless work, Gutierrez said.
“I really didn’t want to be there,” she said. “But I really couldn’t afford to lose my job.”
On Jan. 30, after six months of arriving extra early to fix breakfast, Gutierrez said she had finally had enough and was determined to confront her bosses and demand better working conditions: an increase in her salary or less working hours. When she confronted them, like always, they threatened her and said no.
However, this time was different, Gutierrez said. This time she didn’t lower her head, turn around and go about her duties like she had in the past whenever they said no. This time she wasn’t scared. Instead, she said thank you, turned around and walked out of the front yard and into her husband’s truck.
Away from all the tension and exploitation.
“I had had enough,” Gutierrez said. “I finally said to myself, ‘that’s it no more abuse’ and decided to quit my job.”
Gutierrez said when she started working with that family she was only hired to
take care of a 5-year-old girl and clean the house. As time went by, however, and the family became accustomed to her, her duties began to increase while her salary stayed the same.
“They always wanted me to keep busy,” said Gutierrez. “I had to be doing something all the time I was never just allowed to breath.”
Unfortunately, Nicolas said, cases like Gutierrez’s are entirely too familiar.
“Domestic workers are hired to do one thing and little by little the patrones add and add more duties, more hours and no overtime pay,” Nicolas said. “It’s just not fair.”
Gutierrez agrees, she too does not think its not fair, “housecleaners, like any other worker, should have the right to fair wages and proper working conditions,” she said.
“Without having fear of getting fired or deported,” she said.