Nora Calderon and Senator Leland Yee at a meeting in late February.

It’s 7:15 a.m., and Nora Calderon and Anali Padilla, food trays in hand, are running to the bus that will take a group of lobbyists to Sacramento.

The crew they will feed wear aprons instead of suits. But when the busload of middle-aged women and their children arrive at the State Capitol, the aprons will come off. They are there in late February to face off with state senators as they lobby for AB 889, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

These women know the life of a domestic because that is what most do: clean houses and take care of children.

“I clean 35 to 40 houses a week and I receive $10 per house,” says Veronica Nieto, a speaker at the event. She earns $350 to $400 a week. “It’s not enough to take care of my children or to put food on the table.”

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights promises to regulate the wages, hours and working conditions of California’s housekeepers, caregivers and other domestic workers.

If passed, it will give domestic workers a slew of new rights — to meal and rest breaks for personal attendants, to overtime pay and workers’ compensation.

Calderon will share her story in Sacramento with Senator Leland Yee, who represents the Eighth Senate District, which includes San Francisco and San Mateo counties. Yee supports the idea of the measure, but he’s leery of the cost to investigate complaints from domestic workers, which legislative analysts put at $385,000 a year. He’s asked the bill’s authors for changes and expects they will be addressed.

The bill passed the Assembly last year and is currently in the suspense file of the Senate Appropriations Committee. It needs to pass out of the Appropriations Committee and gather 21 votes to pass the full Senate.

Calderon hopes to address any outstanding concerns Yee may have and to put a human face to the struggle.

“We need to ask him for apoyo,” Calderon says, using the Spanish word for support. “He needs to see how many people come to this event and how many people support this bill.”

Calderon first stepped inside the office of People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), at 335 South Van Ness in the Mission, 12 years ago. Someone had handed her a flyer that spoke to her experience as a domestic worker.

“I have been overworked, exploited and underpaid,” says Calderon, who now works for the San Francisco Living Wage Coalition as a community educator. “But I still kept working. I had kids to take care of.”

Padilla, her three-year-old son on her lap, has similar tales. “One of my employers had a bell that she rang when she needed to get my attention.” Padilla, now an organizer, has been to Sacramento six times for this bill. “It made me feel like an animal.”

During the two-hour bus ride, the aromas of sweet bread float through the air as the women practice their testimony with a partner. The testimony must be brief, concise and to the point, a coordinator and member of Mujeres Unidas tells them.

One woman stresses how she was overworked and underpaid. The women next to her nod in agreement. “We are not appreciated for our work,” one woman says.

In Sacramento, the women and a few men split into three groups of 15 to meet with different senators.

Some women set up a tent on the grass in front of the Capitol and begin to set up the trays of hot food for lunch. Others create a small daycare center by laying out a blanket and providing the kids with a few games. Soon children are running around and chasing one another while they wait for their moms to come back.

One young girl in particular already understands the importance of this campaign.

“Every night my mom comes home too late to say goodnight to me,” says 11-year-old Aylin Alvarez. “She deserves to have the right to take a break and she shouldn’t be working extra hours.”

After a press conference with Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, Calderon shakes his hand and takes a photo with him. She has a big smile on her face as she acknowledges the hope that she feels.

Later, Calderon and others walk over to Yee’s office. After waiting 20 minutes, the group grows impatient. Calderon talks about respect.

After another 10 minutes, Yee opens his door.

Calderon gets right to business. “We are the ones that wash your underwear,” she says. “We do the work that rich people do not want to do.” She mentions not getting paid sometimes, wanting respect.

Yee nods and twirls a piece of paper as Calderon talks. “Yes, yes,” he says.

After five other people talk, Yee ends the 10-minute meeting.

“I think this is an important issue,” Yee says. “We are trying to understand every aspect of this issue because some issues were raised.”

With a straight face and a firm voice Calderon reminds him, “For us it is very important that you represent us.”

The group heads out of his office, feeling a bit defeated, but on the ride home, spirits lighten and it’s clear there will be more trips.

Later, Adam Keigwin, Yee’s chief of staff, says that the senator has always supported the bill and only wants some changes to address the impact it could have on those with disabilities. The women’s strategy of meeting with members of the legislature, he adds, was on point. “Whenever you hear those real-world stories it certainly makes a difference.”

Even before knowing this, Calderon and the others remained resolute.

“I have been exploited and lied to by various bosses,” says Calderon. “I’ve lived in Los Angeles, New York and now San Francisco. The level of exploitation is the same in every city; that is why I continue to fight this battle and I will not stop until this bill is passed.”

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  1. I could be wrong, but I get the impression that Alejo doesn’t have much, if any, experience with household help. In my part of Latin America domestic help was always addressed with the honorific of doña; doña Jacinta, doña María, doña Margot, etc. The exceptions were the younger women who were outranked by the older ladies.
    The people who worked in our home were there to do a job, not be treated as menials. Speaking harshly to them was out of the question. Saying thank you was expected.
    Household help, whether they were laundresses, cleaners, dishwashers, gardeners, cooks, etc., all provide extremely valuable service, and they should be well paid for it. If you cannot afford it, or you’re too stingy, do it yourself. Perhaps then you’ll realize how difficult it can be.

  2. Alejo doesn’t get the point and sounds like an a$$-hole. Some people need to work and don’t have the choice to say no to unreasonable work conditions. What he is saying is that before any kind of fair labor laws were passed in this country that meant that all of the people that were harmed or maimed seemed like idiots. Maybe Alejo needs to know what it is like to not have everything given to you like a spoiled BRAT

  3. Another way of saying this is you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t flood California with cheap illegal labor AND expect to get the same rights/wages as those who reside here legally and operate in the legal framework of the state. Its pure economics. Demand and Supply. When there’s millions of folks coming here illegally and willing (and needing) to work domestically the power tilts to the demand side and wages are depressed.

    Quite frankly, the best way to improve the wages and conditions for domestic workers is to have less immigration. its just supply and demand. If I hire someone and they demand a certain a wage, overtime, etc. I can always just say “no” and find one of the other hundreds of people needing this kind of work….

  4. Ok just read the legislation. Sounds like 90% of is simply the removal of exclusions on CA labor law for domestic labor… That sounds very reasonable. However, again since we are dealing primarily with illegal immigrants the situation is ripe for abuse (just like the farm-workers). No amount of legislation is going to change the reality of working here illegally and therefore being at the whim of the employer. They employer can pay less than minimum wage and provide no breaks and the employee really doesn’t have recourse as its all illegal anyway….

  5. “One of my employers had a bell that she rang when she needed to get my attention.” Yes that is how some people like to have their domestic help arranged. If you don’t like it quiet. There is nothing abusive or illegal about that. This is how servants have been summoned since the 17th century…

    Don’t we already have a minimum wage and mandatory rest-breaks for 8 hour day? Isn’t this Federal law? What is the point of this legislation then. 90% of these folks are here illegally and therefore don’t get these protections which is why they are being abused in the first place…

    And sorry but if “I clean 35 to 40 houses a week and I receive $10 per house” you are a horrible business person. That’a ludicrous wage. I have a cleaning service, all illegal immigrants, and they charge $65 for 1 bedroom apartment. $10 for house is obviously a lie or this person is mentally retarded…