As California’s Wildfires Get Worse, Domestic Workers Fight For Protection
In October 2019, a stretch of dry weather and strong winds sparked dozens of wildfires across California, killing three people and destroying hundreds of homes. For the low-wage immigrants who work in those homes, fire season brings its own dangers.
Housekeepers and gardeners lose jobs they rely on, and some workers are recruited for new jobs that could jeopardize their health. This month, domestic workers are fighting for new legislation that could change that.
Sandra found out she had lost her job on Facebook. She cleans houses in Malibu for a living, and when the Woolsey Fire started in 2018, she spent days anxiously checking the news, wondering what was happening to her client base. A few days into the disaster, one of her favorite employers posted a few pictures of her home.
“Her house had burned down completely,” Sandra says. She asked KALW to refer to her by her first name only, out of fear that speaking to the press could hurt her future job prospects. “The important thing is that everyone’s okay.”
The Woolsey Fire burned through Malibu for almost two months. Sandra couldn’t work and says money started drying up fast. “I was having trouble with bills,” she says, “I was struggling with basics like food and rent.”
So when another employer of Sandra’s got in touch with her, she was relieved. She says it was a family with a nice little girl she knew, who lived in a huge house in Malibu on the mountain.
“I thought I was going to clean a normal house, with some dust,” she says. “I didn’t know about the ash.”
When Sandra arrived at the house, she discovered that her employer’s home was still standing. Their neighbor’s house, however, had burned down. She says the fire had coated her employer’s property in a thick layer of ash and debris, which had saturated the family’s beds and furniture.
“My employers didn’t tell me anything,” she says. “They didn’t tell me anything. They didn’t give me a breathing mask, they didn’t give me basic gear.”
Sandra says she cleaned the whole house, without any protection for her face, eyes, or skin, for three straight days. “The ash flies in your face and hair, it covers your whole body,” she says. “I realized that the ash was bad for me, and for my body, for my organs, for my lungs. But I needed the money. I needed to work.”
'The Crux Of The Problem'
Climate change is intensifying California’s wildfires, and in many cases, low-wage immigrant workers like Sandra are cleaning up after them. Scientists agree that the wildfire ash they comb through can be toxic. According to California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), employers have to provide workers with basic safety gear, like masks, as well as training when cleaning up hazardous materials.
But because Sandra is a domestic worker, the treatment she describes during the Woolsey Fire could be considered legal. “Household domestic service” jobs aren’t covered by Cal/OSHA, which means domestic workers are excluded from California’s health and safety laws.
“You've identified the crux of the problem that gets presented because of this exemption,” says Cal/OSHA Chief Doug Parker, after hearing Sandra’s story. “That would be a violation if that was a traditional employer-employee relationship.”
Parker says Cal/OSHA has investigated a range of safety violations during wildfire cleanups over the past few years, including workers who cleaned burnt or damaged homes. But because domestic workers like Sandra are excluded from Cal/OSHA, the situation she describes gets tricky. Courts decide what is and isn’t “household domestic service” on a case-by-case basis, and it’s not clear whether Sandra would be considered a domestic worker in this context. On one hand, she was hired by a homeowner to clean their house. On the other, she was doing work that most domestic workers are not expected to do.
“We have a worker who, on the face of things, is doing what we would consider squarely domestic work — most of the time,” says Parker. “But then they're being asked to perform a service that is hazardous.”
Workers’ rights advocates say they have a solution to this legal conundrum. They want to extend health and safety laws to domestic workers once and for all.
After a series of conversations with California’s Domestic Workers’ Coalition, State Senator Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) introduced SB 1257 last week, a bill she says would repeal the Cal/OSHA exclusion.
Domestic workers “are an integral part of our economy, but we treat them as if they're invisible,” says Durazo. “It’s time they are protected, and there's no explanation or justification to exclude them in this economy.”
'The Highest Level Of Danger'
Historically, domestic workers have been excluded from a range of state and federal labor laws, sometimes for racially-motivated reasons. In the 1930s, U.S. Senators from the South refused to support minimum wage laws if they included domestic workers and farmworkers, many of whom were workers of color in Jim Crow states.
California has closed some of these loopholes at the state level, including 2013’s Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which granted nannies, personal health aides, and other domestic workers the right to overtime pay. Workers’ rights advocates have wanted to get rid of the Cal/OSHA exclusion for years. They say a series of alleged labor violations following wildfires have instilled new urgency in their campaign.
“It's the highest level of danger, right?” says Nicole Marquez-Baker, a staff attorney at the workers’ rights non-profit Worksafe. Her organization has been tracking alleged labor violations during wildfires across the state. “This is one of the most dangerous kinds of situations that a worker can be in.”
We don’t know how often domestic workers get roped into wildfire cleanup work. Cal/OSHA Chief Parker points out that low-wage immigrant workers can be reluctant to file official complaints against their employers. But workers, state officials and labor organizers across the state describe a similar pattern.
Christy Lubin is the Director of the Graton Day Labor Center, a worker-led organization that connects low-wage immigrant workers with jobs around Santa Rosa. When the Tubbs Fire burned through the city in 2017, she says, “they lost their livelihood completely. I heard of groups of women who clean houses together, who had like 50 houses, and all of them burned down.”
When the fire was finally out, Lubin says some homeowners started calling again. “We were starting to get calls from people [saying], ‘well, my house? We're not in the fire zone, but it's covered in ash.’”
Lubin says the Graton Day Labor Center warned its members against taking these jobs because of the related health risks, but she’s met other domestic workers who participated in cleanups. “We supported a woman who did go into the zone, and a whole team of people who were wearing knee length pants and short sleeves,” she says. “They ended up breaking out in rashes, and a couple people had respiratory issues and had to go to hospital. It was very toxic.”
The most extensive research on this issue was compiled by el Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA), a non-profit that works with low-wage immigrant workers in the Los Angeles area. Funded by a grant from United Way LA, the organization surveyed over 500 low-wage immigrant workers about their experience during the 2018 Woolsey Fire. According to IDEPSCA’s Program Manager, Nancy Zuniga, over 50 domestic workers described deep-cleaning homes in Malibu the way Sandra did, often without masks, gloves or other basic safety gear.
These cleanups took place within the context of other potential labor violations. “A lot of the workers shared with us that they were, helping during evacuations,” says Zuniga, “helping take out [employers’] horses, helping take out their pets.”
One domestic worker told KALW that she and her employer stayed behind at his house on the first day of the Woolsey Fire, hosing down his roof as the wildfire burned closer. She only wanted to go by her first name, Maribel, because she feared repercussions at work. Kim Alvarenga, the Director of California’s Domestic Workers’ Coalition, says she’s heard similar stories.
A Toxic Environment
When Sandra cleaned her employer’s house, she says the ash made her chest hurt and her lungs ache. Her skin felt itchy wherever the ash touched it. At the end of the job, she says she went to a doctor, who fortunately didn’t find anything wrong. Wildfire ash and its health impacts are not well understood, but scientists studying wildfire pollution say it often contains toxic chemicals, and we don’t know what its long term effects might be.
“You have all kinds of toxic chemicals in a structure like a house, and those don't necessarily go away when the structure burns down,” says Cal/OSHA Chief Parker. “They can create other compounds that are toxic.”
California has taken steps to protect workers from wildfire pollution. Parker says his agency would be happy to look at a case like Sandra’s. In an emailed statement last week, California’s Labor Commissioner’s Office encouraged domestic workers to file a claim “if they are fired or suffer other retaliation for refusing to work in a mandatory evacuation zone,” adding that “there are some other [legal] codes that could apply” to them.
Last year, Cal/OSHA issued a wildfire smoke emergency standard that requires employers to offer workers breathing masks during severe wildfire smoke. It’s the first law of its kind in the country, but, because of the Cal/OSHA exclusion, it might not protect workers like Sandra either.
“The most vulnerable workers that are impacted by these climate change disasters wouldn't even be covered,” says Worksafe attorney Marquez-Baker.
'You Have To Protect Yourself'
Durazo’s bill, SB 1257, is still a work in progress. It’s a “spot bill,” or a piece of placeholder legislation that can be revised to be more substantive later. Currently, the bill is focused on creating a new outreach program that would educate domestic workers on their rights. Durazo says she plans to amend the bill so that it would appeal the Cal/OSHA exclusion, and she is writing those amendments this spring.
“That came from working with the coalition and the domestic workers themselves,” she added.
In the meantime, an unusually dry February is sending California back into drought, which could fuel exacerbate this year's fire season. Sandra suggests that domestic workers watch out for themselves. She’s still struggling to find work in the Malibu area, though homeowners are starting to rebuild. She says she drinks a lot of water and tries to safeguard her health.
“You have to protect yourself with the right clothes,” she says, giving advice to other domestic workers. “With a mask and clothes you bring to protect yourself. We work hard, they don’t want to pay us right, and the work is hard on us, on our bodies.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism's 2019 National Fellowship and the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism.
A previous version of this story refered to Cal/OSHA Chief Doug Parker as the agency's director. His official title is Chief of Cal/OSHA, not Director. We regret the error.