By Melissa Sanchez
After 22 years as a caregiver, Lisa Thomas is still surprised by how some employers mistreat her and the elderly she’s paid to help.
There was the time a patient’s adult son chased her out of the house with a butcher knife.
One client recently called Thomas on her day off because her daughter hadn’t changed her diaper, and she was developing bed sores.
“Of course I went to help her. I didn’t care if I got paid,” said Thomas. “I love my seniors.”
Thomas is one of thousands of caregivers, nannies and housekeepers who work in Chicago. Tired of the low pay and sometimes abusive conditions, she joined a movement of domestic workers in Illinois seeking basic labor protections, including the right to a minimum wage and overtime pay.
Work Without Rights
Unlike other jobs, many federal and state labor regulations exclude domestic workers.
In recent years, groups such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance have campaigned to improve labor conditions. New York, California and Hawaii have since enacted bills of rights for domestic workers.
“This has long been regarded as women’s work, making it a second-class type of occupation for many policymakers,” said Nik Theodore, a University of Illinois-Chicago professor who has studied the economics of domestic work.
Close to a quarter of the workforce earns less than minimum wage. Two-thirds lack health care. Many are immigrants. So, too, many African-American women like Lisa Thomas fill these ranks.
“Most of us don’t complain because we want to send money home,” said Myrla Baldonado, a Filipino immigrant and former caregiver, who now organizes domestic workers with the Latino Union of Chicago.
Though it was founded by day laborers in 2000, the Latino Union expanded to include domestic workers about two years ago.
“There is some overlap,” said Gabriela Benitez, who coordinates the domestic worker campaign. “Some of our day laborers have relatives who are domestic workers.”
Efforts to organize domestic workers, day laborers and other low-wage workers represent an “alternative” to traditional unions, Theodore said. And unions have embraced the movement.
“There has been a sea change on the part of the union leadership to say that we need to have a bigger conceptualization of how we see organized labor,” he said.
Drives to Change State Laws
For the last year groups like the one Lisa Thomas belongs to have pushed for a domestic workers bill of rights in the Illinois legislature. So far, New York and California has passed laws protecting the rights of domestic workers.
But the Illinois effort has been stuck in the legislature.
This article appeared in the Chicago Crusader
The Community Media Workshop supported this reporting
Join us tomorrow, Tuesday, Feb. 11, for a forum about workers like Lisa Thomas and other low wage workers who are hoping for their rights and a decent wage. More than a dozen and half groups will be on hand to talk about an unprecedented number of low wage workers campaign, among them the drive for a minimum wage of $15 for workers for large corporations in Chicago.
We meet at 6 pm at 618 S. Michigan Ave., Stage Two, Columbia College, Chicago
We welcome community groups and activisits and others as well who want to take part in this important dicussion.
Talk to me – digame
Steve Franklin firstname.lastname@example.org
Tags: Chicago Coalition of Household Workers, Melissa Sanchez, minimum wage campaigns in Illinois, minimum wages and black females, minimum wages and black workers, minimum wages and domestic workers, National Domestic Workers Alliance