On July 23, Seattle became the first city in the country to pass a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights.

While eight states have already passed such laws, Seattle’s historic ordinance represents an ambitious new second generation of this movement—one which is creatively tackling both the needs of workers historically excluded from the protection of labor laws, and setting decent work standards, beyond minimum wage, in this growing industry.

First, the new Seattle law erases the separation between the protections available to employees, versus those available to independent contractors—essentially eliminating the distinctions between the two terms from a labor law standpoint. Under most laws, only “employees” are entitled to labor rights like minimum wage, the protection of anti-discrimination laws, state-level unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation insurance.  That distinction has invited abuse in many low-wage industries where people of color are overrepresented, with employers frequently calling workers “independent contractors” in order to evade the law.

Seattle’s ordinance takes a different tack. It covers “domestic workers” and imposes obligations on “hiring entities.” So no matter what label an entity chooses to place on a worker, that entity must comply with the law. This “statutory employee” model is already a feature of some state laws, and is rooted in a provision of the Social Security Act for certain workers in delivery, homeworkers, and traveling salespeople. The model is being employed at the city level in Seattle for domestic workers only, but it could be extended by cities and states to a variety of industries, including janitorial, delivery, on-demand services, home care, and others where workers are often labeled—and mislabeled—as independent contractors.

Second, Seattle will be the first jurisdiction to broadly set standards to cover the unique needs of these workers through a standards board where workers themselves are at the table.

Wage boards aren’t new and have existed in some states for decades. It was a wage board that provided the structure for tripartite negotiation among workers, businesses, and government that New York used to deliver a $15 minimum wage to fast food workers—a standard which was then extended by the legislature to all workers in New York.

Successful wage boards have three key components:

  • A structure where worker members are selected by, supported by, and representative of worker organizations;
  • Broad authority to look beyond wages to the many elements that compose a worklife;
  • A governmental body that supports the effort and is responsive to the recommendations reached by the commission.

Seattle’s bill has all of these elements. Domestic workers themselves will be at the table as part of the city’s 13 member board. The board’s broad mandate includes making recommendations on training, accreditation, wage standards, overtime, access to paid time off, retirement and health care benefits, workers’ compensation, and written hiring agreements.

With this ordinance, Seattle is beginning to restore a measure of equity to domestic workers, reverse historical exclusions based on racism, and ensure that workers have a collective voice in determining how they work and for what wages and benefits.

The bill has the full support of the City Council and the mayor’s office—following the unanimous Council vote, Mayor Jenny Durkan will sign the bill on Friday, July 27.

With this ordinance, Seattle is beginning to restore a measure of equity to domestic workers, reverse historical exclusions based on racism, and ensure that workers have a collective voice in determining how they work and for what wages and benefits—and is paving the way for other cities and states to do the same.

Many thanks go to Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who shepherded a thoughtful and inclusive process in development of the law, Casa Latina, Working Washington, the National Domestic Worker Alliance, and especially to the nannies, housecleaners, and caregivers who do the daily work that makes all other work possible and who spoke out to make the new law happen.


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