During the 2018 Woolsey wildfire in California, Vicenta Martinez cleaned houses in Malibu directly in the eye of the fast-moving fire. As Martinez toiled in one family’s yard trying to clean up ash, they watched from inside while she inhaled smoke, her eyes growing red and watery. Her employer never asked about her well-being or even offered her a glass of water, Martinez said.
In areas of California impacted by wildfires, day laborers and domestic workers like Martinez are vital. Residents in these communities informally hire immigrants to ensure the safety, security, and well-being of their families and properties. But this same population of workers was cast aside in 2018 with almost no guarantees of economic or safety protections after laboring in the shadows and helping residents “battle flames, escape from harm’s way, and cleanup properties soon after the immediate fire risks subsided,” according to a report by the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California, an organization supporting this workforce. Domestic workers and their allies are now taking lessons they learned from the wildfire and applying them to the pandemic, demanding basic labor protections.
As a housecleaner in Southern California, Martinez has endured unsafe work conditions for years, and her ordeal during the 2018 wildfire is seared into her memory.
“It was a very sad experience for me because I felt like my life didn’t have value and like they didn’t value my work,” Martinez explained, crying. “I had skin issues after and issues with my throat, but I didn’t have money to go to the doctor.”
That’s one of the many reasons the Indigenous mother from Oaxaca has joined other domestic workers across California to fight for Senate Bill 321, the Health and Safety for All Workers Act.
Under the California Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1973, the definition of “employment” specifically excludes household domestic service. SB 321 seeks to change that by extending “workplace safety requirements to areas of the economy dominated by informal, and exploitative, employer-employee contracts,” The Nation reported.
“We don’t have safety,” Martinez said. “Workers have been dying and what is happening to us is not OK. We shouldn’t have to go through this. We don’t have support.”
As the law currently stands, Martinez could be terminated for asking her employer to provide PPE during peak fire season beginning in July when California is expected to experience historic devastation. It goes without saying that the homeowners Martinez currently works for in the Koreatown area of Los Angeles are presently under no obligation to provide her with PPE during the pandemic. During the winter, Los Angeles was the coronavirus epicenter and it was working-age Latino immigrants like Martinez who were over 11 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than U.S.-born residents who were not Latino.
An array of labor rights and immigrant rights organizations are supporting SB 321, including the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Filipino Advocates for Justice, and the California Immigrant Policy Center (CIPC), a statewide immigrant rights organization that promotes and protects safety, health, and public benefits and integration programs for immigrants. Sasha Feldstein, CIPC’s economic justice policy manager, said that each year when the California wildfires hit, the organization hears “devastating” stories from domestic workers and day laborers. In some instances, these workers were asked to stay behind to help fight fires or pack up houses in areas that have been evacuated. In other cases, these workers weren’t even informed the area had been evacuated, and they showed up to work and were subjected to smoke inhalation.
“Because of how the law is currently structured, California domestic workers have no recourse against these kinds of abuses. They have no health and safety rights in our state,” Feldstein said. “The [California Division of Occupational Safety and Health] has denied protections to domestic workers, which means when their health and safety is jeopardized at work, they don’t have a leg to stand on.”
But failing to provide basic protections to domestic workers also has ramifications for employers and broader communities—especially during the pandemic. Feldstein said that many domestic workers have multiple jobs and without regulations in place, safety is left up to chance. A worker may have one “good” employer who provides PPE and another unscrupulous employer who does not, subjecting workers and employers’ families and communities to unnecessary risk.
“This is an issue that touches everyone because you’ve either worked as a domestic worker, had a loved one who has, or you have relied on a domestic worker. Everyone is harmed by this,” Feldstein said. “That’s why we support SB 321. It removes this egregious exclusion so if a domestic worker’s rights are violated, they can do something about it.”
SB 321 is set for hearing May 3 and while Martinez and other domestic workers have high hopes for the act, there are also fears it will ultimately not become law. Last year, SB 1257 would have extended Cal/OSHA coverage to domestic workers. The bill passed the legislature on Aug. 30 with no opposition, but it was vetoed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said that from a regulatory perspective, the places people live cannot be treated the same as a traditional workplace or worksite.
Feldstein argues that implementing basic workplace protections would not require substantial restructuring of existing law. California homeowners are already considered employers who must abide by wage and hour laws. Plus, SB 321 would implement a complaint-based system, which means Cal/OSHA would work with employers to abate hazards if and when a worker files a complaint.
“We just want to add health and safety precautions to the list of laws these employers already have to abide by,” Feldstein said. “It’s really just about ensuring that domestic workers are treated like other workers.”
Governor Newsom’s office did not respond to request for comment by publication time.
Newsom’s veto of SB 1257 was devastating to workers like Martinez, who said that immigrant workers like her have to contend with a wide array of harmful workplace conditions—from wildfires and dangerous chemicals to sexual harassment. The 42-year-old said that she sometimes worries that she will not live to see her daughter’s graduation.
“We just want safety,” Martinez said. “Does the governor have someone cleaning his house or helping to raise his children? If so, I want him to know that she deserves safety too. We are essential workers and we are just asking for basic protection.”