After 18 years as a professional house cleaner in the suburbs of Chicago, Magdalena Zylinska says she feels very lucky. Unlike many of her fellow domestic workers, she hasn’t sustained any serious injuries.
Zylinska, 43, cleans residences in the metropolitan Chicago area five days a week. An independent contractor, she cleans two to three houses each day. Fortunately, she doesn’t do the job alone — she always works with at least one other person, so they can help each other with much of the lifting and other types of repetitive physical labor that can often lead to preventable injuries and even long-term disabilities. But Zylinska is well aware of the hazards and abuses that frequently accompany the duties of domestic workers — the house cleaners, nannies and caregivers who work in unregulated workplaces with no employer oversight, accountability or standards. A workforce largely made up of immigrants and women from minority communities, domestic workers often face a level of workplace isolation that lends itself all too easily to exploitation and persistent, preventable dangers.
So when Zylinska heard an advertisement on Polish-language radio about a free training course specifically designed for domestic workers on occupational health and safety as well as green cleaning, she jumped at the chance. In late 2013, she took the training course and received a certificate of completion that she hopes to use in marketing her services. During the weekend-long training course, Zylinska and her fellow domestic workers also learned about their rights under wage and labor laws and how to negotiate a contract with a client.
The course Zylinska took was developed and organized by Arise Chicago, a local worker center that partners with faith communities to fight for worker justice and is one of many efforts across the country bringing much-needed health and safety training to domestic workers.
“We don’t really know what our rights are,” Zylinska told me. “We come from a different country, we don’t know what’s expected of us — a lot of (employers) will use that against us. …I wish more people could take this course.”
About four years ago, Arise Chicago began reaching out to domestic workers, but found that the isolating nature of the industry made it difficult to bring workers together, said Ania Jakubek, domestic worker organizer at Arise. Fortunately, Jakubek and her colleagues began making some real inroads after recruiting workers to participate in the first national survey of domestic workers, which was conducted by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and findings from which were released in 2012. The experience solidified the need to organize Chicago’s domestic workers, Jakubek said, and so advocates began talking with workers about their personal and professional needs. Formal training and education quickly rose to the top.
“They wanted education related to their work,” Jakubek told me. “They said they didn’t feel like professionals and felt like they were undervalued.”
In turn, Jakubek partnered with researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago School of Public Health to develop a domestic worker health and safety curriculum that includes education on labor and wage rights. (Jakubek noted that Arise first tried organizing a know-your-rights training for domestic workers, but it wasn’t a great success. When the focus switched to health and safety, however, worker interest rose markedly.) The final training curriculum focuses on three main topic areas — chemical hazards and green cleaning, ergonomics and how to deal with work-related stress — and includes education in domestic worker rights and how to negotiate a contract. The curriculum, which draws inspiration from a guidebook developed at Berkeley’s Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, addresses many of the specific risks and conditions uncovered in the NDWA survey and report, “Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work.”
That report, which summarizes survey responses from more then 2,000 nannies, caregivers and house cleaners in 14 metropolitan areas and was conducted in nine languages, found that 38 percent of workers had suffered from occupational wrist, shoulder, elbow or hip pain in the previous year; 29 percent of house cleaners had suffered from skin irritation and 20 percent had experienced respiratory problems; and 29 percent of caregivers had suffered a back injury in the previous 12 months. The survey also found that 23 percent of survey respondents were paid below the state minimum wage, 35 percent worked long hours without proper breaks, and 25 percent of live-in domestic workers had responsibilities that prevented them from getting at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep in the week prior to being surveyed. The great majority of domestic workers said they didn’t speak up about troublesome workplace conditions for fear of losing their jobs.
Veronica Avila, workforce development director at NDWA, said because most domestic workers are excluded from labor law protections and don’t receive proper health and safety training, worker centers such as Arise play a hugely important role. She said the alliance is currently working on creating an inclusive curriculum that can be easily adopted by worker groups nationwide, with the ultimate goal that comprehensive training will lead to increased negotiating power among domestic workers as well as higher wages.
“The home is a workplace that has real implications for the health and safety of workers,” said Avila, who noted that health and safety protections are a central piece of the alliance’s push for stronger legislative protections, such as the California Bill of Rights that went into effect last year. “It’s really about having an impact on the day-to-day life of workers.”
Health, safety and justice: ‘Domestic workers have to build power’
The Arise training, which is taught in Polish and conducted over the course of a weekend, begins with lessons in ergonomics, such as safe lifting, bending and carrying techniques, as well as tips on how to look for and assess hazards in the workplace. Education then moves on to chemical hazards and green cleaning, as many domestic workers work with harsh and potentially dangerous chemicals on a daily basis.
During this part of class, workers get some hands-on experience making their own cleaning products with more natural and less abrasive ingredients, such as vinegar, incense oil and plain soap. (Much of the green cleaning lessons draw from Vida Verde, which supports Brazilian house cleaners in making green cleaning a reality.) Marsha Love, an occupational health educator at the University of Illinois-Chicago who worked with Jakubek to develop the training, said the green cleaning demonstrations are among the students’ favorite lessons. In fact, one exercise has students developing an advertisement for the green cleaning products they create in class.
After ergonomics and green cleaning, discussions turn to stress — what causes stress on the job, how stress manifests, how to deal with stress collectively and as individuals, and how to address the organizational and systemic roots of domestic worker stress. This is where education on one’s labor rights and how to effectively negotiate with employers is especially important, as it’s often the lack of formal parameters and expectations in the domestic worker-employer relationship that are the source of worker stress.
“The personal stress relief part is so important,” Love told me. “The problem for many domestic workers, especially live-ins, is that time is not their own. So to find time for stress relief is a big issue.”
Jakubek said the training encourages workers to put together a stress relief “goodie bag” that they can carry with them. The goodie bag could include a piece of chocolate, a soothing aromatic pouch or a picture of one’s children. But, she said it’s education on how to put together a contract and how to negotiate with clients that really gets at the roots of domestic worker stress and empowers workers to celebrate and value their work. In addition, bringing together workers who typically labor in isolated environments is a form of therapy in itself, Jakubek said. At the end of each training weekend, workers who’ve completed the entire course receive a certificate and are offered a chance to join Arise and the growing domestic worker movement.
“The knowledge they’re getting is so important,” Jakubek told me. “They’re undervalued and they’re not protected by most laws. We need to change that — that’s one of our goals, to get them involved in policy change.”
As of late spring, more than 60 domestic workers had participated in the Arise training and received a certificate of completion, said Jakubek, who’s now working with her partners to develop a health and safety train-the-trainer curriculum. The completion certificate states that the worker has participated in health, safety and green cleaning training and is designed to help domestic workers market their services and secure fair employment.
“Once workers are in the room, they feel free to speak about their needs and share their experiences and we can use that as a basis for thinking about problems and taking action on them,” Love said. “It’s a very dynamic experience — the facilitator is them, not me.”
Arise isn’t the only Chicago worker center reaching out to domestic workers with education and training. Last year at Latino Union of Chicago, organizers trained more than 100 domestic workers in the span of four months — it was the union’s first such health and safety training for domestic workers. Building off a longtime partnership between the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety Education and Research Center and the Latino Union, the center brought on an intern — industrial hygiene student Sheila M. Serrano-Serrano from the University of Puerto Rico — to develop a domestic worker health and safety curriculum. During focus groups with domestic workers, Serrano-Serrano found that even among workers who did not report a work-related injury, 75 percent still experienced pain after completing a work task.
Like the Arise curriculum, the Latino Union curriculum, which is delivered in English and Spanish, covers ergonomics, chemical hazards, hands-on green cleaning training, stress relief, labor rights and employer negotiations. Participants are offered contract templates and receive a certificate upon completion.
But unlike more traditional health and safety training, the Latino Union curriculum kicks off with a discussion on the history of women workers and their many accomplishments, said Joe Zanoni, director of continuing education and outreach at the university center. This year, Zanoni said organizers are now offering domestic workers CPR training as well — a skill that domestic workers had specifically requested.
“We start with the idea that everyone deserves dignity and respect,” Zanoni told me. “We offer some ideas, (the workers) offer some ideas and hopefully we can start a conversation in which workers can support each other. We want health and safety to be a natural part of their lives.”
Myrla Baldonado, domestic worker organizer at Latino Union, said she’s heard from many domestic workers who said the training empowered them with the skills and confidence to initiate conversations with employers and clients — “it lifts up their spirits to see that they can change their situations,” she said. The Latino Union is home to the Chicago Coalition of Household Workers, which is devoted to advancing an Illinois Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.
“Domestic workers have to build power,” Baldonado told me. “Right now, there are no rules — it’s a completely unregulated workplace.”
Zylinska, who’s experienced more than one wage theft attempt at the hands of dishonest employers and now works to organize domestic workers as a member of Arise Chicago, said she highly recommends the health and safety training to fellow workers. She also hopes the training course will facilitate the gathering of typically isolated workers into a larger movement for domestic worker rights.
“Maybe we can find the solution together,” Zylinska told me. “Together, we have the power to change the situation.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.