About 100,000 domestic workers are employed in the District, including nannies, house cleaners and in-home care providers for the elderly and people with disabilities.

But these workers aren’t protected from discrimination and harrassment. This means that domestic workers can be rejected from jobs or fired based on their race, country of origin, pregnancy, or other traits that are protected under the D.C. Human Rights Act.

Why doesn’t D.C. protect domestic workers from discrimination⁠—and what is being done to close what many consider a loophole in the law?

Produced by Cydney Grannan


  • Laura Brown Executive Director, First Shift Justice Project; @1stShiftJustice
  • Brandon Todd D.C. Councilmember (D-Ward 4)
  • Ingrid Vaca Local domestic worker and organizer, National Domestic Workers Alliance


  • 12:12:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Later in the broadcast we'll get a preview of this weekend's National Book Festival, but did you know that domestic workers in the District don't receive protection from discrimination in the workplace? Most workers in the District are protected from employer discrimination, but domestic workers are not. This means they can be refused jobs or be fired based on their country of origin, their race or for getting pregnant among other things. Joining us to explain the lack of discrimination protection and efforts to change the policy is Laura Brown. Laura Brown is the Executive Director of the First Shift Justice Project. Laura Brown, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:12:37

    LAURA BROWNHi, thank you for having me.

  • 12:12:38

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Ingrid Vaca. Ingrid Vaca is a domestic worker and organizer with the local chapter of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Ingrid Vaca, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:12:49

    INGRID VACAThank you so much for invite to us.

  • 12:12:52

    NNAMDILaura Brown, tell us first about the First Shift Justice Project.

  • 12:12:57

    BROWNFirst Shift provides legal services to working mothers in low wage jobs in D.C. whose jobs are at risk because of pregnancy discrimination, lack of access to a reasonable workplace accommodations during pregnancy, lack of access to leave, sexual harassment and domestic violence.

  • 12:13:13

    NNAMDIHow did you first find out that domestic workers do not benefit from anti-discrimination protections?

  • 12:13:19

    BROWNThrough a client. I had a client contact our organization in 2016, because she needed help working with her employer, who after she told them she was pregnant had informed her that they were going to shorten her employment contract. She was here on a G5 Visa working for a family that included a foreign national. And it's a requirement of the State Department that they all have employment contracts. Her employment contract was good for another year, and her employer approached her after she said that she was pregnant to say that they would be terminating her contract at the point where she was seven months pregnant.

  • 12:13:59

    BROWNThey explained that they were concerned about her continuing ability to care for their two sons. That they were concerned that she might experience pregnancy complications later in her pregnancy that required bed rest and prevented her from working. And they were concerned about how they were going to cover her job and replace her during the time that she needed to recover from childbirth.

  • 12:14:22

    BROWNAnd so for that reason they were going to abbreviate her contract, and she wanted to know what she could do about it.

  • 12:14:27

    NNAMDIAnd you said, well, we can turn to the D.C. Human Rights Act. You're protected there.

  • 12:14:32

    BROWNRight. Well, our goal is always to try and help a woman negotiate with her employer to maintain her job. We did that. I said, that's illegal. They can't do that. And in the end several weeks later after attempting to negotiate with the employer she was fired. And she was a live-in, which meant she lived in an apartment in the household. And so when she contacted us not only was she losing her job, but she was losing her house and they had already -- her home and they had already purchased a plane ticket for her to return to her home country, because she would be out of status. And so at that point we determined that, you know, resurrecting or maintaining that job was going to be impossible. And that the employment relationship was going to end. And so that's when we filed a charge for her at the D.C. Office of Human Rights and also filed a complaint with her employer's international employer.

  • 12:15:27

    NNAMDIAnd what happened with the D.C. Office of Human Rights?

  • 12:15:31

    BROWNWell, the parents, the family also retained counsel and as soon as we -- shortly after we filed the charge, the counsel for the family submitted a letter or a document to the D.C. Office of Human Rights arguing that the case should be dismissed, because she was not covered by the D.C. Human Rights Act. And, you know, I'm an employment lawyer. I've been an employment lawyer for decades at this point. And I have to admit that it was surprise, because D.C. has one of the most protective human rights acts in the country. We protect, you know, work places where there is one employee or more. And it's frankly appalling that there this explicit exclusion of a group of workers.

  • 12:16:19

    NNAMDIWhat types of jobs are considered domestic worker jobs in D.C.?

  • 12:16:23

    BROWNGenerally domestic work is considered the people, who provide care for children in the home are domestic workers. People who provide in-home care for elderly or disabled people are domestic workers or people who clean households are domestic workers.

  • 12:16:40

    NNAMDIAnd did you discover why they are excluded from the D.C. Human Rights Act?

  • 12:16:46

    BROWNWe did not. I mean, the short answer is there is no answer. We had students at UDC's Law Legislative clinic look into this for us. The precursor to the Human Rights Act was passed by Congress before the Home Rule Act established our D.C. Council. And there's no legislative history for it. However, many federal laws have historically excluded both domestic workers and agricultural workers notably two areas of employment that were formally filled by slaves. And so most legal scholars have concluded that, you know, there's a connection between -- it's like a remnant of slavery. That there's a connection between slavery and the exclusion of these workers from discrimination protections and other protections under the law.

  • 12:17:36

    NNAMDIIngrid Vaca, you are a domestic worker here in D.C. What kind of work do you do?

  • 12:17:41

    VACAMany times I do many things, because, you know, I have my family. And before when I just start to work like this I take care of babies. And then I take care of the old people. Right now I'm cleaning houses. But it's no matter. But when they need me, you know, like a nanny or take care adult people, I go into work, because I love my job.

  • 12:18:07

    NNAMDISo you do a lot of things. Why did you decide to join the local chapter of the National Domestic Workers Alliance?

  • 12:18:14

    VACABecause many times, you know, not only me, but I hear about my friends. They have a lot of discrimination. They have sexual harassment and they don't have any place to put in a complaint or anything, you know. And also sometimes when we are sick, we don't have sick day payment. We don't have retirement when we finish the job or maybe sometimes like Laura said we don't have pregnancy time for --

  • 12:18:53

    NNAMDIDon't get time off when you're pregnant.

  • 12:18:54

    VACAYes. We don't have also. But for this, you know, what's very no fair. And also something was very extraordinary and very incredible is we are not -- we are excluded from the Human Rights Act. For this, you know, I decide to fight for, you know, for this dignity job, because I love this job. Also this worthy job lets me bring all the stuff I need for my family.

  • 12:19:24

    NNAMDIRecently it's my understanding you asked an employer, that you have been working for, for a long time, for a raise. Can you tell us what happened?

  • 12:19:34

    VACAYeah. It was very sad this moment, because I told him if he can pay me $10 more because, you know, the house was very dirty. Sometimes that person do poo poo in many places. He paid me $80 for every time when I'm going to clean. And I told him if he wanted to pay me $10 and he said, "No. I can't. You charge me very expensive and you work just 15 minutes to clean my home." You know, I never can clean a home in 15 minutes.

  • 12:20:09

    NNAMDINever heard of that one.

  • 12:20:10

    VACANever because sometimes also just the bathroom I clean in 20 minutes, just the bathroom and then, you know, the less maybe time when I work in apartment or something very small apartment are two hours. This is the less time. And he doesn't want to give me $10 more and he fired me.

  • 12:20:32

    NNAMDIIs sexual harassment also a problem for domestic workers?

  • 12:20:35

    VACAYeah, because many times, you know, some people -- some sisters -- I call sisters to all my friends. You know, they are working inside the houses and sometimes they have a sexual harassment and they don't have any place to put in a complaint, because sometimes they lock the doors. Sometimes they took the documents and everything and the people they can't go anywhere to do anything about that.

  • 12:21:08

    NNAMDIAllow me to go to the phones and bring Kirk in Frederick, Maryland in on the conversation. Kirk, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:21:16

    KIRKHello, I have a girlfriend, who works as a nanny. And her employer often asks her drive different places, because her employer doesn't have her own driver's license. And they have a little one year old. And I'm concerned that the employer's insurance might not cover my girlfriend if there's an accident, because my girlfriend is actually working at another regular -- residential insurance doesn't cover commercial situations.

  • 12:21:40

    NNAMDIAnd you're wondering how domestic workers are treated in incidents like this? Do you have any idea Laura Brown?

  • 12:21:45

    BROWNWell, if you're in Frederick it probably depends in part on whether your girlfriend is working in Maryland or Virginia.

  • 12:21:55

    NNAMDIAllow me to ask Kirk. Is your girlfriend working in Maryland or D.C. or Virginia?

  • 12:22:00

    KIRKShe's working in Florida.

  • 12:22:02

    NNAMDIOh, she's working in Florida.

  • 12:22:03

    BROWNThat even further complicates matters as far my expertise.

  • 12:22:06

    NNAMDIYes, because we will talk about Montgomery County later.

  • 12:22:08

    BROWNI would say that, you know, I can't speak on the issue of, you know, car insurance. But I can say that if she's an employee of the people that she works for she should be covered by worker's comp if there are any injuries. Well, you know, our organization aims to serve all working mothers. We don't specifically do outreach to domestic workers. But since I had that one call in 2016, I've had additional calls and they've all followed a similar pattern where a domestic worker in all cases for us at least, it's been a nanny has told their employer that they are pregnant and the employer has terminated their employment shortly thereafter in order to avoid essentially having to deal with their maternity leave and other issues that might come along later in the pregnancy.

  • 12:23:00

    NNAMDIIngrid Vaca, I have to ask, because you have been going knocking on doors asking people about this issue. What kind of responses have you been getting?

  • 12:23:10

    VACAOh, yeah, we were knocking doors since two weeks ago. We are so happy because we collect 500 cards, because the people signed for us. This is our goal we already have and this is very important for us, because the people showed to us how important we are for them. Because, you know, the domestic workers we are not all only domestic workers. Sometimes we are teachers. We are psychologists. You know, we are nurses, because when the people, when the kids are, you know, they need to learn Spanish sometimes or another language. Sometimes the people hurt. We take care of them or sometimes when they have problems in the families we are talking about that, you know. We take care also the families in all the total. And the people was very nice and we get 500 cards. It was 90 degrees in this moment.

  • 12:24:17

    NNAMDIAnd people signed those cards saying they support your cause.

  • 12:24:20

    VACAThey signed for us. Yes.

  • 12:24:21

    NNAMDIThat is amazing.

  • 12:24:22

    VACAYes. Yes.

  • 12:24:23

    NNAMDII want to bring D.C. Councilmember Brandon Todd in on this discussion, because we don't have a great deal of time left. Brando Todd represents Ward 4 on the Council and for purposes of this discussion he is the Chairperson of the Committee on Government Operations, which oversees the Office of Human Rights. The Office of Human Rights enforces the Human Rights Act. Councilmember Brandon Todd joins us by telephone. Thank you very much for joining us.

  • 12:24:48

    BRANDON TODDYes. Thank you, Kojo. Thank you for having me this afternoon.

  • 12:24:51

    NNAMDIWe mentioned that the Office of Human Rights is overseen by your committee on Government Operations. So are you looking to change it so that the D.C. Human Rights Act covers domestic workers?

  • 12:25:03

    TODDKojo, I absolutely am. I plan to introduce legislation when we go back into session in September that would create a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and include domestic workers in the Human Rights Act. This was brought to my attention back in April, when the National Domestic Workers Alliance met with my staff. And we've been working with them the last few months to look at what makes it in the District of Columbia. And we will be following nine states that have passed laws extending labor protections to domestic workers like Oregon, California, Connecticut, New York and others.

  • 12:25:46

    TODDEven our neighboring Montgomery County has passed its own domestic workers law more than 10 years ago. And so with all of the progress that we're making in the District of Columbia providing paid family leave to workers, I think that, you know, closing this gap, this loophole is the exact right step that we should be taking at this time.

  • 12:26:10

    NNAMDIWhat does the timeline look like at this point? And do you think you'll get unanimous support from the Council on it?

  • 12:26:16

    TODDWell, I'll introduce it when we go back into session on September 17th. I chair the committee that it will be referred to. So I would set a hearing in a pretty short order. And move it through the Council as quickly as possible. Quite frankly I think it's a no-brainer. We have to protect those that are taking care of our seniors, that are raising our children and that are contributing so greatly to the fabric that is the District of Columbia. So for me it's a no-brainer and I look forward to moving as quickly as possible to make it law and to amend the HRA.

  • 12:26:57

    NNAMDICouncilmember Todd if and when this domestic workers bill of rights that they're also considering were to pass, do you know which agency would handle enforcing a domestic workers bill of rights?

  • 12:27:10

    TODDSo we're still looking at that. And, you know, we're working with the Office of Human Rights. We're working with the National Domestic Workers Alliance to figure all of that out currently. So everything is still very much in motion.

  • 12:27:25

    NNAMDIBrandon Todd is a D.C. Councilmember representing Ward 4 and the Chairperson of the Committee on Government Operations. Thank you very much for joining us.

  • 12:27:32

    TODDThank you.

  • 12:27:33

    NNAMDILaura Brown, we've heard a lot about Virginia and Maryland. How does D.C. compare with Virginia and Maryland when it comes to protecting domestic workers? Do their Human Rights Acts include domestic workers?

  • 12:27:44

    BROWNWell, in Virginia domestic workers would be excluded from the discrimination laws what we say is by operation of law, because their statutes don't cover smaller workplaces and a domestic worker workplace is just about as small as you can get. And in Montgomery County and in Prince George's County, those two civil rights statutes do cover employers with one employee or more. And so they cover.

  • 12:28:12

    NNAMDISo there are protections for domestic workers in those jurisdictions.

  • 12:28:13


  • 12:28:15

    NNAMDIWe'll just have to see what happens in this one. Laura Brown is the Executive Director of the First Shift Justice Project. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:28:23

    BROWNThank you very much. And if anyone is interested in showing their support, we have a website www.domesticworkers.org/dcrights. You can sign on to support domestic workers in D.C.

  • 12:28:37

    NNAMDIIngrid Vaca is a domestic worker and organizer with the local chapter of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:28:43

    VACAThank you so much. And I want to mention something, because this problem is not all only for the immigrant people, for the womens of color. It's also for the American women, because sometimes it's very incredible in this place. You know, it's the Capital of the world we don't have any protections. And we want the people to see how hard is our job, because without our job nobody can live. It's true because, you know, if you don't have a clean house you can't live very good. If you don't have a nanny to take care of the babies like we take care, you know, it's very hard for many people. And we still knocking at doors. We're still talking with the member of the Council. We want the people support to us. Thank you so much.

  • 12:29:38

    NNAMDIAnd clearly you're very passionate about your work and your activism. So thank you again for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll get a preview of this weekend's National Book Festival. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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