Nannies of the Northwest, Unite! Seattle Tests a New Labor Model

(Bloomberg) -- For a growing chunk of America’s labor force, the workplace is the home -– someone else’s home.

And in Seattle, nannies, cleaners and home-caregivers just won a battle that offers a glimpse of a brighter future for the embattled U.S. labor movement.

The city’s council unanimously passed legislation late Monday that enshrines minimum wages and guaranteed rest-breaks for domestic workers, who were excluded from many New Deal-era labor protections. What’s groundbreaking about the Seattle measure is that it also empowers the workers to negotiate industry-wide conditions and regulations.

They’ll be represented, along with employers, on a new permanent board tasked with writing new rules on areas like overtime pay, sick leave and health benefits. Members will be appointed by lawmakers and the mayor, and will bring their proposals to the council for a vote.

‘Won’t Be Automated’

The plan carries echoes of Europe, where it’s routine for workers and management to negotiate over standards for a whole industry, rather than just reach company-by-company deals. The model appeals to some advocates in the U.S., where collective bargaining has been in decline for decades and the Supreme Court dealt a new blow to labor last month by banning mandatory public-sector union fees.

It’s happening in an industry where demand is “exploding,’’ as aging baby-boomers prefer to be cared for at home rather than in costly and impersonal institutions, according to Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

“These are going to be a really large share of the jobs of the future,’’ she said. “They’re not outsourceable, they won’t be automated.’’ But because of a lack of labor protections and standards, “people who really want to be caregivers end up leaving this work.’’

There’ll be more than 4 million home-health and personal care workers by 2026, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects, an increase of some 40 percent in a decade. Those jobs pay a median annual salary of around $23,000.

‘Striking a Balance’

The Seattle bill does not apply to home-health aides who are publicly funded. But it covers other home-based care and cleaning workers -- regardless of whether they’re self-employed, hired directly by consumers, or employed by agencies.

Such regulations risk making care at home too expensive for many American seniors, according to William Dombi, president of the National Association for Home Care and Hospice.

“It comes down to some very difficult decisions in striking a balance between the worker and the person they serve,’’ said Dombi. He acknowledges that “society has yet to catch up’’ with the respect that domestic workers are due, but says Congress decided for good reason that the balance should “be struck in favor of the consumer.’’

Labor advocates counter that providing basic protections is crucial to attracting and retaining a qualified workforce.

‘On to the Red’

Seattle is an illustration of the way America is diverging on workplace rules, with some jurisdictions adopting anti-union “right-to-work’’ laws while others test the limits of pro-labor policy.

The northwestern city passed a $15 minimum wage law after convening representatives of labor and management to hammer out the details. In 2015 Seattle created its own collective bargaining system for Uber drivers, which is now being challenged in court. Current Mayor Jenny Durkan pledged during her campaign last year to back a “Domestic Worker Bill of Rights”

After success in Seattle and eight states that passed their own protections for home-care and cleaning workers over the past decade, the National Domestic Workers Alliance plans to unveil a federal version in September.

“We want to conquer Seattle, and then we want to conquer Washington State, and then we want to conquer the blue states, and then hopefully on to the red,’’ said Ty Messiah, a Seattle nanny who testified in favor of the legislation -– and also wrote and performed a song for the campaign.

‘Nothing At All’

One of the biggest U.S. unions has suggested making sectoral standards the new normal across the economy.

Future secretaries of labor should be given the authority to impose pay-and-benefits mandates on particular industries, “based on recommendations from panels that are made up of workers and employers and community partners,’’ Mary Kay Henry, the first female president of the Service Employees International Union, said in March.

That’s an almost unimaginably ambitious agenda for labor activists in today’s Washington D.C., where no increase to the federal minimum wage has been approved since 2007. But in some states, there are laws -- decades old, and infrequently used -- that already give governors similar powers.

After the Fight For $15 strikes in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo invoked his authority to create a “wage board’’ that listened to suggestions from labor and business. It then enacted a statewide $15 minimum wage for large fast-food chains.

The “sectoral bargaining” approach has been endorsed in reports from the Center for American Progress, a think-tank with close ties to the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton, and in a recent essay by the chair of Our Revolution, the advocacy group born out of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.

“The doomsday clock is at 11:59 for the old collective bargaining model,’’ said local SEIU head David Rolf, who’s also president of Working Washington, one of the groups that spearheaded the Seattle measure. “The question is whether it’s going to be replaced by something, or by nothing at all.’’

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.