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.”