KNOW YOUR RIGHTS: DOMESTIC WORKERS IN WASHINGTON STATE
Updated October 2021
NOTICE: The Seattle Domestic Workers Ordinance is in effect as of July 1, 2019. The ordinance has made the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights the law in Seattle. For information about the ordinance, see the Seattle Office of Labor Standards website.
What Will I Learn Here?
This page offers basic answers to common questions about domestic workers’ rights in Washington State, including:
No matter what, know that you have rights. Your employer CANNOT:
take away your personal property or documents
hit you, threaten you, nor abuse you in any way
sexually harass or assault you in any way
withhold your pay
or do anything else that violates your civil rights as a person living and working in this country.
What is Domestic Work?
Domestic work includes many different services that support a household. Services can include caring for family members (children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and people who are ill); housekeeping; cooking; shopping and errands; laundry; gardening; and other in-home work. Domestic workers can be hired directly by the person or family they serve, or work through a business or agency. Domestic workers can also be hired by a condominium association to provide certain services to all residents and maintain the grounds. Workers at hotels, motels, resorts, etc. – the "hospitality industry" – are generally not considered domestic workers. Important: Seattle’s Domestic Worker Ordinance includes hospitality workers.
When Does Domestic Work Become Slavery (Trafficking)?
Work can become slavery when an employer uses force, fraud (lies,) or coercion (threats) to maintain control over a worker and to make the worker believe that there is no other choice but to stay with the employer.
Slavery and trafficking is a problem for all workers. Domestic workers are at high risk for slavery and trafficking. For more information, see the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
Can My Employer Take or Keep My Documents or Things?
No, your employer may NOT keep your original document or other personal property. In Seattle, the Seattle Office of Human Rights enforces this law. See Resources for contact information. In other parts of Washington State, contact the Seattle Office for Civil Rights or the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries.
WAGES AND WORKING CONDITIONS
Do I Have a Right to Be Paid Minimum Wage?
Most domestic workers in Washington State have the right to be paid minimum wage. However, if you work for an employer only once or once in a while, if you are younger than 18-years-old, or if you live where you work, you may not have the right to be paid minimum wage. For more information, see the Northwest Justice Project information on wages.
What Is the Minimum Wage?
In 2021, the Washington minimum wage is $13.69 per hour. On January 1, 2022, it will increase to $14.49 per hour.
The City of Seattle is in the process of increasing its minimum wage for many workers in the city. This does not include most domestic workers’ wages. However, this may change when the rules for the new minimum wage are written. For more information, see listings under “Wages” in the Resources section below.
Do I Have the Right to Take a Break During Work Hours?
Maybe. If you work in Seattle, you have the right to the following breaks:
Meal break: A 30-minute uninterrupted meal break when you work for more than five consecutive hours for the same employer.
Rest break: A 10-minute uninterrupted rest break every four consecutive hours working for the same employer.
If your work responsibilities make such breaks impossible – childcare, for example – your employer must pay you extra for the missed break time. The law does not say how much the extra payment must be.
If you work outside of the city of Seattle and your employer is the household you serve, you may not have the right to take breaks. Domestic workers fall under an exception in Washington law that gives most other workers the right to breaks during work.
If you work for a business that provides the domestic work, like yard work or house cleaning, you have the same rights to breaks as other business employees.
Do I Have the Right to Overtime Pay?
Maybe. If you are working more than 40 hours in a 7-day work period for the same employer, you may get overtime pay (overtime pay is 150% of your current pay). You or your employer can also negotiate for time off instead of overtime pay.
You do NOT qualify for overtime pay if you work occasionally as a babysitter; if you are providing limited companionship care to someone who cannot care for themselves; or if your overtime work is spread out over multiple employers. See the question “Do the Federal Rules on Companionship Care Impact Me?” below to learn more about what kind of companionship-care work qualifies for overtime pay.
The National Domestic Workers Alliance is working on increasing protections for all domestic workers, including overtime pay.
Can My Employer Hold My Wages or Pay Me Less Than I’m Owed?
No. Washington State law protects all workers against what is often called “wage theft”; when an employer does not pay wages on time, pays only part of what is owed, pays qualifying workers less than the minimum wage, gives out bad checks, etc. Your employer must pay you all of your earned wages on a regular payday. The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries enforces this law.
The City of Seattle protects workers against wage theft, too, with the Seattle Wage Theft Ordinance. Your employer must pay you on a regular payday, and include with your pay detailed information about your earnings. This is enforced by the Seattle Office of Labor Standards.
You are also protected against wage theft by the federal law called the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Do I Have to Work More Than 60 Hours a Week?
State law protects you from having to work more than 60 hours a week unless there is an emergency requiring you work the extra time. (RCW 49.28.080) The law does not define what qualifies as an emergency.
Do I Have the Right to Sick or Vacation Time?
If you work 40 hours a week in Seattle, you are covered by Seattle’s Paid Sick and Safe Time ordinance. This allows all full-time employees who work in Seattle to earn paid sick and safe leave. See the information from the Seattle Office of Labor Standards, linked in the Resources section below. However, there is no right to vacation time.
Most domestic workers who work outside of Seattle do not have the right to sick and safe leave or vacation time. The only ones who might are domestic workers who are members of a union. Talk with your employer about what to do when you are sick, when someone in your family is sick and needs you, or you need time off for another reason.
Do I Have the Right to a Day Off?
If you work in Seattle as a live-in domestic worker, you have the right to 24 hours in a row off for every 6 days in a row that you work for the same employer.
If you work for a business that provides the domestic work, like yard work or house cleaning, you have the same rights to days off as other business employees.
Will the New Federal Rules on Companionship Care Impact Me?
Maybe. The federal rules — which went into effect January 1, 2015 — are supposed to help domestic workers who provide companionship care to the ill or elderly (some other words used to describe this kind of work are direct care workers, home care workers, personal care aides, caregivers and companions). The U.S. Department of Labor offers a simple online tool to help you figure out if the new rules will impact you.
Employers must keep track of their domestic workers’ hours and activities to show whether or not their domestic workers qualify for minimum wage and overtime pay. These rules are a part of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
For a full summary of the rules, fact sheets, frequently asked questions about domestic workers’ rights, and to find out if the rules apply to you, see the U.S. Department of Labor’s Home Care webpage listed under “General Resources” in the Resources section below. For a state-by-state summary of companionship care rules, see the National Employment Law Project, also listed under “General Resources” below.
Should I Have a Written Employment Contract?
You can be a domestic worker without an official employment contract. However, having at least a written agreement with your employer is a good idea. An “agreement” is not the same as a “contract.” For example, you cannot sue your employer for not following a written agreement, but you can if you have a contract. That said, a written agreement can help set expectations about hours, wages, vacation, sick time, etc. Hand in Hand offers sample work contracts and agreements. See listing under “General Resources” in the Resources section below.
If I Care for Children as Part of My Household Duties, Do I Have the Right to Refuse to Care for the Children When They Are Sick?
No. Usually, an employer can fire you for not working, even if you have a good reason for not working. If you have a written agreement or contract with your employer you should review it to see if it includes what to do if the children are sick, and whether or not you can ask to not care for sick children. Even if you do not have a written employment contract or agreement, it is a good idea to talk to your employer about what to do when their children are sick, when you are sick, or when your own children are sick.
As a Domestic Worker, Do I Have the Right to Organize a Labor Union with Other Domestic Workers?
It depends on your employer. If you work for a person or family, you do not have the right to organize or join a labor union. However, if you work for a commercial entity, such as a condominium association, to provide household services, then you do have the right to organize or join a labor union and bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions.
HOUSING RIGHTS for LIVE-IN DOMESTIC WORKERS
Do I Have to Pay Rent?
It depends on the arrangement you have with your employer. If your housing is part of your pay, then you do not have to pay rent. If you have no set move-out date, this is called “tenancy at-will.” You can leave at any time, and your employer can make you leave at any time. You do not have many rights in this type of housing situation.
If you signed a lease, you must pay the rent that is listed in your lease. This type of housing situation will give you more rights. For more information, see listings under “Housing Rights” in Resources below.
Do I Have the Right To Certain Living Conditions?
Yes. Your employer must maintain safe housing for you and anyone else living with you. This means that your employer must:
keep everything sanitary and safe;
be responsible for pest control and waste management;
maintain heat and hot water; and
maintain fire safety equipment.
See listings under “Housing Rights” in Resources below.
Can I Move at any Time? Will I Have to Pay Anything if I Choose to Move?
If your housing is part of your pay, you can leave at any time without owing any money. However, this also means that your employer can ask you to leave the housing at any time, though you must be given reasonable time to move your belongings.
If you pay monthly rent, then you have to follow certain rules before you can move out, or the landlord can sue you for money. If you signed a rental agreement with your employer for a definite period of time, such as a year, you have to remain in the housing for the whole lease term or you may lose money. For more information about your housing rights, see the listings under "Housing Rights" in Resources below.
Can I Be Forced to Move If My Employer Fires Me?
Maybe. If you live with your employer and your housing is part of your pay, you can be asked to move out (evicted) when your job ends. If you do not move out when asked, the employer can go to court to have you removed from the home.
If you have a lease for housing with your employer, then your employer must honor that lease and follow housing laws. Usually, this means you can stay in the house even if you no longer work for the employer. Your employer can evict you for other reasons, however. See listings under “Housing Rights” in Resources below.
What Is “Workers’ Compensation”?
Workers’ compensation is a state-run worker benefit program that pays for certain treatment and lost wages due to injuries on the job. Both employees and employers pay into the workers’ compensation fund.
Can I Get State Workers’ Compensation If I Am Injured at Work?
Maybe. If you work in a single private home doing household duties, like cleaning or childcare, and you are the only domestic worker in the house, you do not qualify for workers’ compensation. If you work less than 40 hours per week, you do not qualify for workers’ compensation. You DO qualify for workers’ compensation if the household employs at least two full-time domestic workers. See Resources below.
Can I Get Money from State Workers’ Compensation If I Am Injured at Work?
Some domestic workers will be able to get workers’ compensation if they are hurt, but many will not. If you work in a single private home doing household duties, like cleaning or childcare, you will probably not be able to get workers’ compensation if you are hurt while working. If the household employs two or more employees, each working at least 40 hours per week, then the domestic workers can get workers’ compensation.
If I Cannot Get Workers’ Compensation, What Should I Do?
Consider telling your employer right away that you have been injured. Many people have homeowner’s insurance that might help pay for your medical and other expenses. Some employers may choose to help you becasue it is the right thing to do.
If your employer will not help you, you have the right to sue your employer for money to help you pay your medical bills and other damages. If that amount is less than $5,000, you can take your employer to small claims court. See listings under “Small Claims Court” in Resources below for more information.
Can I Get Workers’ Compensation If I Am Paid Under the Table?
Yes, unless you are the kind of worker that is not covered by the workers’ compensation law. See the first question under the heading "Workers' Compensation" above for information about what kind of domestic workers can get workers’ compensation.
Can I Get Workers’ Compensation If I Am an Undocumented Immigrant?
Yes. The state Labor & Industries (L&I) program will not ask about immigration status, and status does not matter when asking for these benefits. However, your employer can tell ICE about your status at any time. ICE may then investigate, detain, and deport you. Because L&I claims raise employer insurance costs, some employers have threatened to contact ICE if employees file a claim.
If I Break Something in a Home Where I Am Working, What Should I Do?
If you break something in your employer’s home, it is a good idea to write down exactly what happened and tell your employer what happened as soon as you can. Talk with your employer about what should be done about the damage.
Can the Employer Take Money for the Damage Out of My Pay?
No, your employer cannot withhold your wages or your paycheck. If this happens to you, you may contact Casa Latina for help getting your wages. See contact information under “Wages” in Resources below.
The employer could fire you, but might not. Many homeowners have insurance that covers the cost of damages in their home, so your employer can have the damaged property replaced through the insurance policy.
Your employer and/or the owner of the damaged property could try to take you to court to make you pay for it. If the property is worth less than $10,000, the owner may take you to small claims court. See “Small Claims Court” listings in Resources below.
Hand in Hand- The Domestic Employers Network: Sample work agreements.
Legal Voice: Other employment-related publications available online.
Seattle Office of Labor Standards: Information on paid sick and safe time and the Domestic Workers Ordinance.
Seattle Office for Civil Rights: Enforces civil rights ordinances, including the Domestic Worker’s Ordinance
In person: *CLOSED DUE TO COVID-19*
U.S. Department of Labor: Information for home-care workers, including tools to figure out if you qualify for minimum wage and overtime pay.
(Limited information in the Spanish language. Click “Español” at upper right.)
Information and helpline: 1-866-487-9243
Tenants Union: Know-your-rights information for tenants.
Small Claims Court
Small Claims Court information from Northwest Justice Project
Search online for information about your county’s Small Claims Court. Some links provided here:
Casa Latina: Worker’s Defense Committee helps workers claim wages and follow up on complaints to Labor & Industries.
By phone: 206-956-0779 ext. 123.
Wage Booklet (a wage and benefit tool for piece-rate workers
Seattle Office of Labor Standards: Offers fact sheets and questions & answers on the minimum wage ordinance.
Workplace Injuries and Workers’ Compensation
Northwest Justice Project: Information on work injuries and your rights, and getting help with claims.
Claims and complaints: Washington State Department Labor & Industries (L&I): L&I has many offices statewide. You may file a claim or complaint by phone, online, or at your doctor's office (they will file the form for you).
By phone: 1-877-561-3453
Employers’ Guide to Workers’ Compensation Insurance in Washington State, by NOLO.com: Includes some information about which domestic workers do not qualify for workers’ compensation.
This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities.
It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice.
This information is current as of October 2021. Updated by Chloë Phalan, 11/29/21.
Legal Voice gratefully acknowledges the work of Andrew Kashyap, Jennifer Hill, Pat Brady, Helen Eastwood,
and Sara Ainsworth on previous versions of this memo.
© 2021 Legal Voice — 1-206-682-9552
(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice
and to individuals for non-commercial purposes only.)