San Francisco poised to give sick pay to house cleaners, nannies and caregivers

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San Francisco has had a law on its books mandating sick pay for employees since 2006.

But the city’s estimated 10,000 domestic workers — who include house cleaners, nannies and caregivers — have had a hard time taking advantage of the benefit, forcing them to work through injury or forego caring for an ill child.

They often toil behind closed doors for multiple employees, making it difficult to track and accumulate time off, according to labor activists and local lawmakers — a situation exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Soon, if a new ordinance is passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, they might not have to choose between their health and their livelihoods.

Proponents say the ordinance would ensure that domestic workers can take paid sick time by creating a portable benefits system that would be the first of its kind in the U.S.

Evelin Alfaro, right, and Tina Shauf Bajar lay down flowers for at the San Francisco rally for domestic workers’ rights.

(Brooke Anderson)

“They’ll finally have the right to get sick and to stay home and to get paid,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who introduced the ordinance Tuesday. “So many workers end up going to work sick and risking themselves and the people that they work for. Because it really is a matter of, ‘Do I pay rent this month? Do I put food on the table for my kids?’”

Evelin Alfaro, a house cleaner, remembers waking up four years ago with a fever and headache. She went to work anyway, fearing she would lose a steady job.

“The employer was very demanding, but I also wanted to be able to keep that work because it was regular weekly work,” Alfaro, 40, said through a Spanish interpreter.

The proposed ordinance would allow workers like Alfaro to aggregate hours from different employers to count toward their sick pay.

An app would keep track of the hours and calculate what employers owe, making recordkeeping manageable, according to Ronen, who co-wrote the ordinance with the California Domestic Workers Coalition.

Under San Francisco law, employers are required to provide employees, including domestic workers, with one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours on the job.

However, hours logged for different employers can’t be added up, Ronen said.

That means if employees work 15 hours for one employer and 15 for another, they still won’t have earned an hour of sick time. Domestic workers sometimes work for 10 to 20 separate employers each month, making it nearly impossible to accrue the hours.

Their employers — typically private individuals rather than businesses — may be unaware of the sick leave obligation or how to keep track of it.

Workers’ vulnerability became especially evident during the pandemic, said Kimberly Alvarenga, executive director of the California Domestic Workers Coalition.

“When they became ill because of COVID or they had a family member that became ill, even though they have the legal right to sick time, they were not able to access that benefit,” Alvarenga said.

A large proportion of domestic workers are women of color, and many are immigrants, meaning they tend to suffer additional societal and economic disadvantages.

Ronen is confident the ordinance will pass. It now has eight co-sponsors, which equates to a veto-proof majority on the 11-member board.

Calling domestic workers “the original gig worker,” Ronen said the ordinance is a test case for an evolving economy. If it works for house cleaners, she reasoned, it could work for Uber drivers or those performing odd jobs on Task Rabbit.

“This is extremely exciting for domestic workers,” Ronen said. “But also, if it works how we hope that it will, it could really be a new way of making the workplace much safer, much friendlier, for gig workers at large.”

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