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Structural Racism in Liberal Armor: Newsome’s Veto Domestic Workers’ Rights Bill

On Thursday October 1st, self-professed Liberal Governor Gavon Newsome vetoed SB 1257, the Health and Safety for All Workers Act. The governor’s action, say advocates for the three-hundred thousand domestic workers directly impacted by the veto, is reckless and racist at its very core. The workers are overwhelming women of color, already living at the margins.

Newsome may not be a member of the Proud Boys–with a swastika stamped on his naked chest–but his “cruel decision” to kill the bill, says Renee Saucedo, Program Director ALMAS/Graton Day Labor Center, will cause “more hardship, suffering and potential deaths” than any actions that rag-tag right-wing fringe group could ever have taken. Sauceo, a longtime civil rights attorney didn’t mince words regarding the implications of the Governors structural racism.

“Vetoing of SB 1257 will have a devastating impact on not only the 300,000 domestic workers in California but all of their family members,” she told me, the anger rising in her voice. “Governor Newsom has vetoed a bill that offers basic health and safety protections to the women, primarily women of color, who work inside people’s homes – right – who historically have been excluded under health and safety protections of Cal-OSHA simply because their work has never been valued. And they have never been valued,” said the seasoned Chicano civil rights attorney . “So this governor who says that he values immigrant workers, says that he values essential workers has, by vetoing this bill, showed us that his words don’t mean anything; they’re not true. Because to deny hundreds of thousands of domestic workers, plus indirectly all of their family members and community members a lack of access to basic health and safety protections is both structural and unconscionable.

“To call Newsome’s veto structural racism is in no way an exaggeration,” Saucedo said. “Ask any of the women who are out there today protesting in front of the governor’s office in San Francisco they’ll say ‘of course it’s structural racism.’ It might be subtle to some, but to us it’s a stab in the heart; it’s a slap in the face; it’s an insult. Because the message you are sending to us and these essential workers is that you don’t value the lives of our community. You don’t value the lives of our moms and our sisters and our entire families. You don’t value us; you don’t value the work that we do. And that in and of itself is an assumption that has creeped into many of our policies, our practices, our laws, our institutions; that assumption. And so absolutely it’s institutionalized racism. And the good news is that these women are so powerful. Today they said Governor Newsom; you don’t know who we are and we will continue to fight until we gain a victory. Why? Because it’s an issue of life and death for us.”.

On October 1st, outraged domestic workers gathered in downtown San Francisco and Los Angeles to protest Newsom’s decision to veto SB 1257. The bill would have pointedly ended the 47-year exclusion of domestic workers from CAL/OSHA, the Occupational Safety Health Act. Domestic workers–including house cleaners, nannies, and homecare workers remain the only workers who do not have the legal right to a healthy and safe work environment. Workers held signs with messages like “Governor Newsom, Your Veto is Killing Us” and staged a die-in on the steps of the State Buildings in both cities to dramatize the gravity of their message. Speakers spoke out as to what the governor’s veto would mean, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing wildfire season.One after another, the outraged workers and their supporters gave first hand accounts as what it will mean for their already treacherous working condition give the still-blossoming pandemia and the out of control wildfire scorching large swaths of the earth where there are still forced to work and live

Rosario Mejica, leader of Filipino Advocates for Justice, and herself a homecare worker for more than 12 years in the bay area was frustrated and disappointed. “As caregivers, we feel very frustrated with the Governor’s decision,” she told reporters. “We need health and safety protections and training to safely do the essential work of caring for clients and assisting them to live independently in their homes. We won’t stop fighting for this right. We will keep fighting for domestic workers like me who are out on the frontlines now, and for the domestic workers who will come after us.”

SB 1257 was approved by both houses of the California State Legislature in the waning days of August and requires the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) to assemble an advisory committee of employees and owners to develop specific regulations for domestic service. Roughly 300,000 workers or more would be covered, including house cleaners, caregivers for the elderly and children, gardeners and others.The employers would then be mandated to notify domestic workers of dangerous job hazards. 11 million California homes and apartments would then come under Cal/OSHA’s jurisdiction.The governor asserted that vetoed the law because the places people live cannot be treated the same as a traditional workplace or worksite from a regulatory perspective.

SB 1257 would extend employers’ obligations to private homeowners and renters, including the responsibility to create an injury prevention plan and require employers to conduct outdoor heat trainings. Newsom said in defending his veto–that would endanger hundreds of thousands of mostly latino and Filipino women, and protect landlords and homeowners–that “Many individuals to whom this law would apply lack the expertise to comply with these regulations.”

Maegan Ortiz, executive director of the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA), said that the governor’s claims are racist folly that betray these workers who have been declared essential under the Pandemic” she said. “I think it’s really important to read the governor’s veto message carefully because I think that shows and lays bare really where the governor’s alliances are. The governor mentioned two main points: one, that he does not believe that homes that are also workplaces should be regulated in the same way as other workplaces. Which is a very dangerous assertion given the fact that domestic workers in California and nationwide have had to fight for super basic things like minimum wage and access to overtime. The second assertion that Governor Newsom made in his veto message was that the privacy of employers basically was more important than the health and safety of those who work in those homes. Which I think is absolutely horrifying. I think it just lays bare a very sexist, a very racist, a very anti-worker and anti-immigrant sentiment,” she said. “What are they going to tell women who can die from coronavirus because they contracted it at work?” Ortiz questioned. “Or if an accident happens? That’s why owners have home insurance. There are many regulations that the owners have to follow.”

A recent City University of New York study of 700 California domestic workers has documented the fact that well over 75% of these workers have experienced at least one serious work-related injury, illness or other harm in the past year. The study, “Unprotected on the Job: How Exclusion from Safety and Health Laws Harms California Domestic Workers,” also stated that 1 in every 4 workers said they contracted a contagious disease at work in the past year. A similar number have experienced verbal or physical assault from employers or clients.

“Governor Newsom has made it very clear,” said Kimberly Alvarenga, Director of the California Domestic Workers Coalition. “His message to us is that immigrant women workers, low wage immigrant women workers in the State of California are second class workers. He has made it very clear that they’re good enough and essential enough to clean up toxic ash after wildfires inside people’s homes,” Avarenga continued. “That they’re good enough to clean up after Covid-19 and expose their health and safety in People’s homes every single day. But they’re not good enough to get the same health and safety protections that other people enjoy.”

Elaine Shelley was one of several employers who took part in meetings with legislators to voice her support for the bill, according to a press release from the October 1st action. Shelly is disabled and employs personal care attendants to allow her to live independently. “I want the personal care assistants who come to my home daily to know I remain their committed ally,” she said. “While I remain committed to their safety and dignity, I am deeply saddened that our governor does not share that same commitment. I know that their safety is my safety. Their dignity is my dignity. I will continue in this struggle until those in power understand and acknowledge that.”

For Maegan Ortiz of IDEPSCA, the struggle is real on a daily basis, where life and death hangs in the balance. it is a life and death situation. Just to put it in perspective right now within the last half hour I literally got a message about a house cleaner in Hollywood who has Covid along with her four children, and we’re trying to figure out how to get her groceries as she isolates in her house for the next two weeks and hopefully recovers. To put it in perspective, right now in the Napa region we have members of our statewide coalition evacuating. And thinking about this long-term, yes this absolutely is an emergency issue based on sort of the climate accelerated disasters we’ve seen increasing in California, and obviously because of the Covid pandemic, but it’s also a longer term issue.

One of the areas that IDEPSCA has been working on for a very long time – one of the issues we’ve been working on is the issue of toxic exposure at the workplace. You know there was a study in Europe that came out last year that showed that continued exposure to cleaning products by housekeepers is the equivalent of like a 2-pack a day habit. And we have workers working with toxic chemicals, bleach, now even more so because of the Covid pandemic. So what this means is that a worker, a house cleaner who is working in a house, doesn’t have the right to know if they’re being exposed to Covid. They don’t have the right to ask for safety equipment like a mask that now pretty much has become normalized in the State of California and nationwide. And they don’t have the right to act, as in file a complaint with Cal-OSHA – something all other workers have in the state – if the employer refuses to mitigate.

She thinks about the people she works with and represents, and their struggle to stay alive and keep their families healthy in the face of the covid-19, the wild fires and the pandemic of racism with its flames being fanned all the way to the top of the political pyramid. “You know I think about Claudia who is a nanny,” she lamented, “who was at our event this morning, who rushed over from the Pasadena area. She works where the Bobcat Fire is currently raging. She was rushing because had to be able to make it back so that she could help someone else’s kid logon to their Zoom classes on time,” Ortiz told me. “Claudia is literally down to her last N95 mask in an area with worsening air quality, and she is also a mom. So she is basically risking her life at the expense of her own and perhaps even her child. I think about Claudia…I think about Vicensa as well,” said Ortiz, “who was working in the area of the Woolsey Fire. We did a study of domestic workers and day laborers impacted by the Woolsey Fire, and on average they experienced five days of non-stop exposure to toxic smoke. And I think it’s important to note that this is five days of exposure where there’s no remedy for complaints. But also looking at the context of sort of the larger issue of access and exclusion in California, there’s no access also to healthcare. So what is someone like Vicensa supposed to do when she gets sick in terms of caring for herself and her family?… I think about people like Marisella who is also a worker in the Malibu area. She got Covid and she was exposed to Covid-19 at her job and infected one of her children; and had to isolate in her house while shipping her two other kids somewhere else. And she shared with me last week as she was in my office getting financial support how she had to serve them food, her own children, like a dog. Like leaving plates of food outside for them because she was so scared of coming into contact with them….So that’s what I think about. And I think about the constant humiliation that domestic workers like Marisella, Vicensa and Claudia have to face, and now the risks that they have to take, and that their lives and their health really are now, Governor Newsom’s hands are stained with those illnesses and with those potential deaths.

Alvarenga is outraged by what she called “a clear double standard…Immigrant women workers are not second-class workers,” she said. “They care for the most valuable in our society; our homes, our children, our seniors, our elders, our people with disabilities. This policy would have protected not only the employee but the employer. These are guidelines that would have protected both equally. And they don’t deserve health and safety protections; they have earned them. So yes. The racism is clear. We got the message, said Alvarenga, “and we want to put everyone on notice that this veto doesn’t end our fight. We will be back because domestic workers need and deserve these protections and cannot wait any longer… I’m thinking today about all the workers who will get sick with COVID-19, from exposure to toxic cleaning chemicals or from exposure to wildfire smoke, because the Governor did not take the simple step of including them. We will not let the Governor forget that these illnesses, these injuries and these deaths are now on his hands.”

Ortiz warns it is literally about life and death. “It is a daily life and death situation. Just to put it in perspective. Right now,’ said Ortiz, “within the last half hour, I literally got a message about a house cleaner in Hollywood who has Covid along with her four children, and we’re trying to figure out how to get her groceries as she isolates in her house for the next two weeks and hopefully recovers. To put it in perspective, right now in the Napa region we have members of our statewide coalition evacuating. And thinking about this long-term, yes this absolutely is an emergency issue based on sort of the climate accelerated disasters we’ve seen increasing in California, and obviously because of the Covid pandemic, but it’s also a longer term issue.

“One of the areas that IDEPSCA has been working on for a very long time,” Ortiz continued, “one of the issues we’ve been working on is the issue of toxic exposure at the workplace. You know there was a study in Europe that came out last year that showed that continued exposure to cleaning products by housekeepers is the equivalent of like a 2-pack a day habit. And we have workers working with toxic chemicals, bleach, now even more so because of the Covid pandemic. So what this means is that a worker, a house cleaner who is working in a house, doesn’t have the right to know if they’re being exposed to Covid. They don’t have the right to ask for safety equipment like a mask that now pretty much has become normalized in the State of California and nationwide. And they don’t have the right to act, as in file a complaint with Cal-OSHA – something all other workers have in the state – if the employer refuses to mitigate.

Lee Plaza is a domestic worker and an organizer with the Pilipino Worker Center. She has just come out of quarantine having been exposed to an outbreak in the senior center where she worked. She says as a result of several of a deadly covid outbreak, she has been given the proper PPE but many who she works with and represents are still going face to face with the novel coronavirus without the basic protections that are crucial for their very survival. “I was exposed to Covid because I was assigned by my homecare agency in a facility that was exposed to Covid having six deaths in the month of March when we had our lockdown,” she told me. “ So I had to quarantine myself because I feared for my life, especially that I’m already a vulnerable caregiver since I’m already 60,” she said. And she quickly added that her situation is definitely not unique. “So I have a lot of co-caregivers who also tested positive, and there are three in our center, in our worker center, who died of Covid. And so it is really very heartbreaking that we are exposed to this global health crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. And it’s difficult because you are very insecure to work. Like now I have to go back to work; otherwise as a caregiver we are not given protective day labor laws. Here we have no work/no pay and we don’t have health and safety protections as we work. But we have no choice because we need to work in order to survive. Like it’s a survival of the fittest.”

What would Attorney Renee Saucedo of the Graton Day Labor Center like to tell Governor Newsome regarding his veto, if she had a chance to sit down with him for a few minutes? “I would tell the Governor that he is responsible for the members of ALMAS–the women who I have the honor of working with–developing respiratory problems, rashes, asthma, nausea, headaches, more of our members testing positive and exposing their family members to Covid because he vetoed this law,” she said. “The dangers are real and significant for domestic workers every time they enter a person’s home during a time of pandemic. And living here in Sonoma County where wildfires are becoming more intense and rampant, these women are going to continue to do much of the cleanup because they have to. It’s out of economic necessity. They don’t qualify for other programs or benefits. They go and do these jobs because no one else will.”

“Now the Governor has left us without health and safety protection,” said Lee Plaza. “Now that the governor vetoed our bill, we cannot do otherwise except to fight back and go back to the Capitol. We won’t stop because we are unstoppable now and we can say the domestic workers are invincible and we are strong and we will not stop until he signs SB1257 and gives us the rights we deserve as essential workers.”.

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