Household workers: not just respect

At a small meeting Monday evening, September 29, the personnel subcommittee of Advisory began investigating a proposed resolution filed as Article 18 for this fall’s town meeting. Present for the subcommittee were Nancy Heller of Precinct 8, the chair, Charles “Chuck” Swartz of Precinct 9, Sumner Chertok of Precinct 10 and Christine Westphal. Steve Vogel of the Boston Workmen’s Circle spoke to the subcommittee and an audience of three, supporting the resolution.

Mr. Vogel described the purpose of Article 18 as “educational,” seeking “respect and dignity” for household workers. However, the subcommittee focused on the last sentence of the proposed resolution, saying Brookline “will collaborate with worker-led committees.” Resolutions at town meetings often influence boards and agencies but do not pretend to commit them to particular actions. That takes a law, an appropriation or both.

Not just respect: As the subcommittee soon found, Mr. Vogel’s issues extend to much more than “respect and dignity.” He wants Brookline to help publicize a state law enacted last June. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights law, Chapter 148 of the Acts of 2014, extends most of the state’s fair labor practices statutes to household workers. Fifty years ago, household help was fairly rare in urban Brookline, but now it is common throughout town. Many Brookline residents are likely to be surprised at complex new requirements.

People who employ individuals for household help, rather than contract with companies, are being regulated under labor and industries laws, specifically Chapters 149, 151, 151A and 151B of the General Laws. New Sections 190 and 191 have been added to Chapter 149 by the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights law. Most new requirements take effect April 1 next year, but ones related to unemployment insurance and discrimination took effect September 24.

There will no longer be an exemption from the prohibitions of discrimination or restrictions against summary discharge for workers employed less than 16 hours a week. Any individual worker, even someone employed just once for an hour or less, will have the same rights as a worker regularly employed full-time. People will now have to pay at least the minimum wage, keep careful track of hours and pay overtime rates–generally for Sunday or holiday work and for more than 40 hours a week.

Kid next door: One of the few exemptions remaining says unemployment insurance is not required for temporary services “in case of fire, storm, snow” and other emergencies. [General Laws Chapter 151A, Section 6A(5)] You can still pay the kid next door to shovel a sidewalk without setting up an unemployment insurance policy. However, you can no longer pay the kid so simply to mow your lawn. You will need, at least, to maintain records of wages and hours.

There are many more new requirements when employing individuals for household work. They become complex if the worker receives lodging, meals or other benefits. For example, live-in workers are entitled to 30 days written notice of termination without cause or two weeks severance pay–similar to employment-at-will in most other circumstances. After three months, household workers are entitled to written performance evaluations.

Doing business: Parental leave is now required for regular household employees. Many forms of discrimination become unlawful. Sexual harassment is explicitly included among them. A household employee has a right to file claims at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

Massachusetts residents will now need to plan carefully before they employ individuals for almost any household task, including baby-sitting, dog-walking and lawn-mowing. In most respects, state laws and regulations are going to treat them in the same ways that they treat business employers.

Opportunities for workers to act as “independent contractors” were undermined by Section 1706 of the federal Tax Reform Act of 1986, secretly inserted by the late Sen. Moynihan of New York. As a practical matter, they may need to incorporate a business and work for that business. Householders should not try paying workers as independent contractors without checking whether they can satisfy requirements of state law and federal law.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, October 1, 2014

Beth Healy, Governor Patrick signs Domestic Workers Bill of Rights into law, Boston Globe, July 2, 2014

Warrant for Special Town Meeting, November 18, 2014, Town of Brookline, MA

Warrant explanations, November 18, 2014, town meeting, Town of Brookline, MA

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