Employment Laws Protect Live-In Domestic Workers

More than a million and a half domestic workers labor in U.S. households. Many have limited English skills and aren’t aware of employment laws designed to protect them.

Like many domestic workers, Vilma Serralta lived in her employer’s home. For four years, the 71-year old immigrant from El Salvador labored 80 hours a week as a live-in housekeeper and nanny in the Atherton home of Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sakhawat Khan and his wife Roomy, a private investor.

Particularly in large metropolitian areas, domestic workers are disproportionately immigrants to the United States. For example, in a 2007 study of domestic workers in the San Francisco Bay Area, fully 99% of survey respondents were born overseas. Almost all are women. Typical of many such workers, Ms. Serralta’s limited English skills and lack of familiarity with her legal rights made her particularly vulnerable to employer abuse. She was paid a monthly salary equivalent to between $3 and $4 per hour—far below the minimum wage at the time of $6.75 per hour. Although she was regularly required to work 14 hours a day, six or seven days per week. in the couple’s nearly 10,000-square-foot home, she received no overtime pay.

“I worked very hard for the family and cared for their daughter like she was my own. … I didn’t do this for revenge, I simply wanted justice. I do not want anyone else to go through what I did.”

—Vilma Serralta

When Serralta was abruptly fired in 2006, she sought legal assistance from the Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center and La Raza Centro Legal, Inc. The two organizations filed suit in U.S. District Court, claiming that her employers had violated federal and state worker protection laws.

When Serralta’s lawyers presented the court with evidence that the Khans had forged key evidence in an attempt to mount a defense, the Khans chose to settle rather than face a jury trial.

“The laws protecting workers are powerful and employers who violate these laws do so at their own peril,” said LAS–ELC Senior Staff Attorney Christopher Ho, who was lead counsel for Ms. Serralta.

According to the 2007 report about domestic workers in the Bay Area, “Behind Closed Doors: Working Conditions of California Household Workers”, 90 percent of respondents reported they worked overtime but did not receive overtime pay.

Vilma Serralta: An SF Worker’s Victory Fuels Domestic Labor Movement

“I worked very hard for the family and cared for their daughter like she was my own. … I didn’t do this for revenge, I simply wanted justice. I do not want anyone else to go through what I did.”
Vilma Serralta