For Domestic Workers, Sexual Harassment Can Feel Totally Inescapable

Most domestic workers work alone as nannies, house cleaners, or in-home healthcare workers—leaving them particularly vulnerable to harassment, and with few options for recourse or protection.

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Dec 19 2017, 8:55pm

As a young woman, Juana Flores moved to California from Mexico to work as a live-in nanny for a family with a small child. Soon after she started her job, she says, the sexual harassment started.

During the day, the child’s mother and father were at work, Flores told Broadly—but at night, after the mother went to sleep, the father would find her and talk very explicitly about sex and women’s bodies. He would describe in detail the type of sex he liked to have, she claims, saying things like, “This is what I do to women in hotels” then look at Flores and add, “You’re also good for that.”

He’d “give a lot of details about what kind of sex he likes,” she recalled. The verbal harassment happened on a nearly daily basis; on a few occasions, Flores says her employer grabbed her breasts and butt.

Because Flores lived with the family and was undocumented, the violence felt inescapable. “I was really ashamed and also felt panicked,” she said. “When little things happened—when the fire alarm went off or something—I felt so panicked and so fearful. I recognize now that everything made me jump because I was really traumatized.” Without any way to access resources that might have helped her escape, she felt she had no choice but to return home to Mexico.

A long overdue moment of reckoning around workplace sexual harassment is upon us—and, for probably the first time in history, men are actually facing consequences for their misconduct. But even though addressing workplace violence is crucial and overdue, most of the early media coverage focused on workplaces where women are relatively well paid—in Hollywood, for instance, in media, and in politics—and the majority of victims who came forward were white.

What do you do if you’re sexually harassed at work and you’re not famous, and neither is your boss? Or what if you’re undocumented, or your boss has seized your immigration papers?

Stories like Flores’ raise a series of important questions: What do you do if you’re sexually harassed at work and you’re not famous, and neither is your boss? What if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, and taking a day off to file a complaint means you can’t pay your rent? Or what if you’re undocumented, or your boss has seized your immigration papers? If you thought the notorious Matt Lauer desk button was scary, imagine if your workplace is someone’s home, where you live and are unable to leave. This is the reality for many domestic workers — a workforce mostly comprised of women of color, many of whom are immigrants, who labor in homes caring for children, cleaning, and providing healthcare support.

Domestic workers face compounding issues that make it difficult to report and fight back against sexual harassment. Alicia Garza, the strategy and partnerships director for the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance (NDWA), describes these as “pervasive.” Many domestic workers struggle with economic insecurity: In the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance 2016 Home Economics report, 67 percent of surveyed live-in workers were paid below the state minimum wage. Those rates make saving money nearly impossible, which means losing a day’s pay to file a complaint with a government board would be a difficult choice for most women. Then there are immigration issues—many workers are undocumented, or their employer has seized their immigration papers, meaning they have even more to fear in terms of retaliation. And finally, many domestic workers are “isolated and alone,” as Flores puts it, without access to community or legal resources.

Enforcing anti-harassment and discrimination laws can be difficult, even for workers with access to money and resources. But unlike women who work in newsrooms or on television sets, many domestic workers aren’t even protected by federal anti-harassment and discrimination law due to a policy loophole: Federal civil rights laws against discrimination only apply to workplaces with 15 or more employees. (If your workplace has fewer than 15 employees, you may be protected under state or local law but you can't file a complaint under federal law.) With the exception of those who work for home healthcare agencies or housecleaning companies, most domestic workers work alone as nannies, house cleaners, or in-home healthcare workers. As the sole employees in their workplaces, they don’t even have the right to file a complaint of harassment. This also limits their ability to organize with other workers in traditional ways, such as by unionizing.

Because advocating for change in federal law is so difficult, most activism around domestic worker rights has focused on a combination of grassroots community support and campaigns to change state laws. NDWA has helped pass Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in eight states, which include protections such as overtime rights, paid time off, and protection from harassment and discrimination. In Flores’s state of California, domestic workers, like any worker, can file a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing within a year of experiencing harassment. Because that can be a complicated and lengthy process, Rocio Avila, the State Policy Director for NDWA, tells Broadly that NDWA ensures that in addition to any legal resources, the worker connects to an organization that can provide a community of support.

“I learned that I had the right...to say to my employer, 'No, you cannot talk to me like that. You cannot make me feel uncomfortable.'”

One such group is Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA), a San Francisco–based Latina immigrant organization focusing on community organizing and empowerment. Ten years after leaving her abusive employment situation, Flores returned to California with her husband, where she connected with MUA. MUA takes a holistic approach: In addition to support groups, they offer trainings on everything from negotiating a contract to computer literacy. They also participate in organizing campaigns, such as a recently passed law ensuring overtime pay for domestic workers in California and another requiring warning labels on hazardous cleaning products. They do this work as a lead organization in the California Domestic Workers Coalition, which is part of the NDWA.

“When you have experienced abuse, you know exactly why” someone might not leave the situation, added Flores, who moved up in the organization to become co-director in 2001. “It’s strengthened me to help other women. I’ve been able to show that, yes, you have rights. It’s not your fault. You’re not alone. You can move through this.”

Just as the #metoo movement has helped many women feel they’re not alone in their experiences of harassment and assault, MUA provided a space for Flores to connect with other women, who told her that what had happened to her wasn’t okay. She attended support groups, accessed therapy, and got involved with organizing campaigns to support herself and other domestic workers. “We have a saying at MUA: When you heal I heal, and when I heal you heal,” she explained. “I learned that I had the right...to say to my employer, No, you cannot talk to me like that. You cannot make me feel uncomfortable.”

Now, public attention is starting to shift towards the unique challenges low-wage workers face when confronting harassment. TIME magazine’s Person of the Year coverage—which focused on "silence breakers" who called out harassment and abuse in their industries—included the stories of a farmworker and hotel housekeeper who experienced sexual harassment on the job, and outlets have started covering the struggles of low-wage restaurant workers in addition to high-profile celebrity chefs accused of assault .

As the focus shifts to include people outside of Hollywood, media and politics, there are lessons to be learned from domestic worker organizing. Those in the domestic worker movement have been fighting sexual harassment in the field for years by thinking broadly about what changes workers need to escape harassment: a community of support, yes, but also a living wage and support for just immigration laws. Thinking in the long-term and organizing to improve the lives of low-wage workers illustrates a path forward to help all women fight, escape, and prevent workplace sexual harassment.