History of Domestic Workers in the United States

Historically, we have not cared for our care workers. Let’s not repeat history.

1863: The enslaved, indentured, and semi-free female laborers of colonial times were the original members of the domestic workforce. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, African American women increasingly became paid domestic workers as they were denied most other jobs and segregated from American society. During this time, the figure of the “mammy”, an African American woman loyal to the family for whom she worked rose to prominence, whereas in reality female domestic workers would work long hours and take hand-me-downs instead of payment.

By 1870, the Census showed that 52 percent of employed women worked in “domestic and personal service.”

1901: Inspired by a Chicago newswoman’s undercover experience exposing the mistreatment of live-in domestic workers, some workers formed the Working Women’s’ Association. Only 300 of the city’s 35,000 domestic workers joined, however, causing the association to disband.

Around the 1930s, domestic workers complained of employers offering day work to the lowest bidder in Chicago at the “slave pens” on the corner of Halsted and Twelfth Street.

1934: Dora Lee Jones started the Domestic Workers Union which launched the “Stand Up a Lady for Work Campaign” and lobbied the state and federal government for wage and hour laws as well as inclusion in the Social Security Act.

1935: Domestic and agricultural workers were explicitly excluded from the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act) which protects the rights of employees in the private sector to form unions, engage in collective bargaining, and participate in strikes.

1938: The Fair Labor Standards Act passed, introducing the concept of the 44-hour, seven-day work week, minimum wage, and guaranteed compensation for overtime work in most professions, as well as forbidding child labor. Domestic and agricultural workers were excluded from this law. 

1964: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Most domestic workers were excluded yet again as the Act applies only to employers with 15 or more employees.

1967: The Age Discrimination in Employment Act protected individuals 40 years of age or older from age-based employment discrimination. The law applied only to employers with 20 more employees, therefore, excluding most domestic workers.

1974: With amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act, domestic workers gained protections including minimum wage and overtime pay, yet those who work with the elderly or children were still excluded.

2007: In the Supreme Court Case Long Island Care at Home Ltd. v. Coke, the Supreme Court ruled that domestic worker Evelyn Coke was not entitled to overtime pay after laboring three consecutive 24-hour shifts and regularly working 70 hours a week for $7 an hour.

2007: In this same year, the National Domestic Workers Alliance formed as the nation’s leading voice for domestic workers. One of the group’s primary goals was to establish a domestic workers’ bill of rights, beginning with a grassroots campaign in New York State. The New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is signed into law in 2010.

2011: The International Labor Organization established Fair Labor Laws for the protection of those who cook, clean, and tend to the young and very old. The United States is not one of the 25 countries who have ratified this Convention.

2014: Chicago passed the City’s first minimum wage with language to specifically include domestic workers

2016: Illinois passed the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, after a five-year campaign by the Illinois Domestic Workers Coalition

2016: Cook County passed a minimum wage ordinance that includes domestic workers

By 2019: Nine states have enacted legislation granting labor rights to domestic workers.

2019: On July 15, 2019, U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris, and U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal announced the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights., If passed, it would be the first ever national set of legislation ensuring the rights and protections of domestic workers throughout the country. It has not yet passed at the Federal level.