San Francisco domestic workers—who shoulder the responsibility of handling some of the most basic and necessary needs for those who require the most help—will finally have equal access to paid sick leave. 

District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen, partnering with The California Domestic Workers Coalition, introduced legislation on Oct. 26 that would give equal access to paid sick leave to domestic workers. The legislation—which was sponsored by eight of the 11 supervisors—passed the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 14 and will take effect at the beginning of 2022.

While domestic workers are known for caring and handling the responsibilities of others, the question for far too long has been what happens when these workers become ill or need to care for loved ones?

“Domestic workers are the backbone of our economy, and they make our city run,” said Supervisor Ronen. “This legislation is the first of its kind in the nation, and will provide peace of mind for thousands of domestic workers in knowing that if they get sick or need to go to the doctor that they can easily access their earned paid time off and not face financial insecurity.”

Employees such as house cleaners, nannies and caregivers play an important role in San Francisco’s social and economic structure. And like any other San Francisco worker, they now have the right to paid sick leave. Unfortunately, very few could access these benefits because of their sporadic schedules for multiple individual employers.

“This would be a very big step, a historic step for the domestic workers industry,” said Kimberly Alvarenga, executive director of the California Domestic Workers Coalition. “I think it would be a huge impact on the lives of all these immigrant women who come here to this country and work so hard to have a decent life and for them and their children.” 

Wendy García, a Salvadoran house cleaner in San Francisco, has been through many difficulties at work, mostly related to not being able to get paid sick leave.

“One day I felt very bad and was not able to go to work, I talked to my employer to see if I could take the day off to go to the doctor and she automatically rejected me, she fired me,” said García. After that I went to the doctor and found out that I was pregnant, so I found myself in a situation of unemployment and pregnancy.”

Being pregnant and with another child at home, García had to go to work. “Sometimes I felt down but I had to go, in some extreme cases I did not go, but since I didn’t know about paid sick leave, they didn’t pay me.”

Now working for different employers, García sees hope in this possible ordinance. “This new ordinance would benefit me a lot, because that way I would take care of my children more, if at some point, ‘God forbid’, one of my children gets sick again, I could have that time to count on to be there for them.” 

Santiago Lerma, Ronen’s legislative aide, explained that the ordinance, through the city’s Office of Workforce and Economic Development, would create an app with an account for domestic workers to keep track of hours worked as they move between jobs and multiple employers.

Workers and employers will have access to the app, which will calculate how much money the employer should deposit into a sick leave fund, which would be available for the worker when needed.

Martha Garrido, who is from Peru, works as a house cleaner and caregiver for seniors; one time, she injured herself on the job. 

“Once I slipped in the house where I was working and broke my hand,” Garrido said. “My employer took me to the hospital and I was with a cast for a month and a half. For those days I didn’t work, I did not receive any payment, consequently after two weeks I had to return to work.” 

Guillermina Castellanos, co-founder and director of La Colectiva de Mujeres, affirms that there are more than 300,000 domestic workers across California, and most of them don’t know their rights.

“We have been fighting for this for years, since the coalition was founded,” said Castellanos. “This has always been the vision, domestic workers deserve sick paid leave because it’s a human right, like any other worker, it is time to start creating change.” 

Evelin Alfaro, a house cleaner from Guatemala, remembers going to work multiple times feeling ill. “I have worked with a headache, an upset stomach. I always think that my employer may get mad. We can’t predict when we are going to get sick, sometimes it happens from one moment to another, but we go to work because of the fear of losing our job and not having that much-needed income.”

During the pandemic, wage thefts and unjustified dismissals increased in this labor industry, according to Castellanos. Domestic workers who couldn’t work after contracting COVID​ didn’t receive any income due to illness during their quarantine.

“During the pandemic many of us stopped working because of COVID, and during all that time we didn’t receive our salary,” said Alfaro.

Approximately 10,000 home attendants, nannies, and house cleaners work in San Francisco. Over 85 percent are women, the majority of them Latina, Asian and Pacific Islander, and more than 70 percent are immigrants, according to a 2020 report by the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center.

To help explain the ordinance to their employers, workers like García, Alfaro and Garrido will present a letter provided by the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, according to Lerma, “explaining to the employer their obligations and how this program works.”