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As Connecticut expands labor protections, these volunteers educate the most vulnerable workers

Worker-leader Flor Montenegro attends a meeting of domestic workers at the Connecticut Worker's Center where she says she first learned about her own labor protections as a nanny. A 2021 Connecticut law created a state fund of $200,000 to assist qualified organizations in fulfilling educational responsibilities with domestic workers.
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
Worker-leader Flor Montenegro attends a meeting of domestic workers at the Connecticut Worker Center, where she says she first learned about her own labor protections as a nanny.

For 18 years, Flor Montenegro cared for the children of well-off families in Fairfield County as a nanny.

“I have always worked blindly trusting [my] employers,” Montenegro said in Spanish.

For years, promised raises never arrived. She said she was also not reimbursed for expenses like food and the gas used to take the children under her supervision to their after-school activities.

“The initial verbal agreement was $12 an hour wage, but it was closer to $10,” she said.

Montenegro is one of the more than 40,000 cleaners, nannies and care workers in the state who are now supported by a law passed in 2021 that grants state funding to prevent violations of workers’ rights through education.

“I never saw it as exploitation,” Montenegro said. “It was not until a meeting I attended in 2019 that I realized I shared similar struggles with other women. Some that we kept to ourselves out of fear, or out of shame or for fear of retaliation due to immigration statuses.”

Montenegro said if she had known she had rights, she would’ve said something.

Instead, she quit.

“This is what we call a centuries-long struggle,” said James Bhandary-Alexander, legal director of the Medical Legal Partnership at the Solomon Center for Health Law & Policy.

Bhandary-Alexander said domestic workers have always dovetailed with a struggle for the right to minimum wage, which was excluded from the 1938 Federal Labor Standards Act.

And while in the 1970s, domestic workers won inclusion and protections in wage payment laws, some were still excluded through technicalities.

Currently, he said a domestic worker in Connecticut by default should make the minimum wage of $14 per hour and overtime.

“The problem is workers don't know their rights, or they don't feel that they have the power to actually enforce those rights,” Bhandary-Alexander said.

State laws protect domestic workers

In the last 10 years, the Connecticut legislature has passed several laws to protect the labor rights of domestic workers.

In 2015, S.B. 446 addressed the exclusion of domestic workers from labor protections such as being paid minimum wage, sick days or overtime.

But when the bill was signed, it only provided domestic workers the ability to bring sexual harassment or discrimination complaints against their employer, leaving out the rest.

Then, in 2016, Connecticut became one of the nine states to adopt a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. 

This bill broadened the definition of an employee under state law, scratching away the description of who could be considered an employee, which excluded individuals employed in the domestic service of any person.

But there was a loophole.

“Let’s say you work for a wealthy Greenwich family full time, but you're the only domestic worker there. You’re not gonna get those protections,” Bhandary-Alexander said.

“Whereas if you work for the same family and they have a total of three domestic workers — which actually does happen in Greenwich — then you would be protected.”

To address this education gap among domestic workers, SB 943 was signed into law 2021.

This law created a state fund of $200,000 to assist qualified organizations in fulfilling educational responsibilities with domestic workers.

Among them is the Connecticut Worker Center, where Flor Montenegro first learned about her own labor protections as a nanny.

Members of the Connecticut Worker's Center and domestic workers come together for a meeting.
Tyler Russell
/
Connecticut Public
Members of the Connecticut Worker Center and domestic workers come together for a meeting.

Where workers learn their rights 

At the Connecticut Worker Center in Bridgeport, Montenegro said she lost the fear of speaking up. She learned that her rights were protected. And now she helps other workers learn about newer laws that protect domestic workers like her as a volunteer at the center.

“I’ve been able to help other women who have also experienced abuse and explain the laws that protect us and our labor,” she said.

Nelli Jara, the center’s executive director and a former domestic worker, said a majority of the workers the organization helps are Spanish-speaking migrants.

Over 95% of the workers they train identify as Hispanic women from Bridgeport, Stratford and Trumbull, among other towns.

That reflects national trends. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the vast majority of domestic workers are women, and just over half are Black, Hispanic or Asian American/Pacific Islander women.

“Currently, we have over 1,200 members that have been registered, a number that grew during the pandemic,” Jara said.

Jara said workers feel more comfortable working with the center to contact their employers about wages that weren’t paid, and that is one of their main goals. While many cases involving wage theft are solved through mediation, Jara said they’ve filed over 17 wage theft complaints with the Department of Labor this year alone. The pending cases add up to over $20,000 in potentially owed wages.

Volunteers also hold sessions to inform workers that the new state law also requires their employers to provide a written agreement aimed at preventing wage theft. The written agreement should include pay rate and scheduling – something never before required of domestic employers.

With these efforts, the Connecticut Worker Center has become the connection for workers and their protections. 

“When there is institutional, personal and organizational support at the same time, it’s [like] a triangle that complements everything that can be done in favor of a worker,” Jara said. 

Updated: September 23, 2022 at 11:51 AM EDT
This story has been updated.
Brenda León is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Brenda covers the Latino/a, Latinx community with an emphasis on wealth-based disparities in health, education and criminal justice.
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