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Report: Big awareness gap hampers Mass. domestic workers' law

Nearly eight years after passage of a law granting new rights to domestic workers, the law's effectiveness has been hampered by a lack of awareness among employees and employers and insufficient enforcement resources, a new report concluded.

Researchers who surveyed more than 200 housekeepers, cleaners, nannies, caretakers, cooks and others who fall under the umbrella of "domestic worker" found most had little to no awareness of the protections they are guaranteed under the 2014 law, while the families that employ them were similarly out of the loop on the requirements they face.

The report published Thursday from the Boston College Law School Civil Rights Clinic and the Brazilian Worker Center stopped short of outright criticizing the attorney general's office, which is the primary agency responsible for enforcing the law and educating both employers and employees about its provisions, or other agencies that might play a role in maximizing the law's success.

Instead, authors highlighted the glaring gaps that persist years after its passage and outlined a series of recommended steps they hope will "push all of us to work harder to fulfill the promise" of the legislation.

"Our survey results highlighted two major obstacles hindering the bill's efficacy, the first being a lack of knowledge about the bill and how to report a violation and the second being limited resources to properly enforce it," said Lloyd Hancock, a Boston College law student who co-authored the report. "Additionally, the surveys indicated many instances of non-compliance with the bill, which is most likely attributable to the general lack of knowledge."

Gov. Deval Patrick signed the bill into law in June 2014, and its measures took effect on April 1, 2015.

Many households that hire domestic workers are higher earners. More than one-third of employers surveyed, 37%, reported annual household incomes of $250,000 or more.

The workers themselves landed much lower on the income ladder. More than eight in 10 who participated in the survey said they earned less than $40,000 per year, and 47% earned less than $30,000 per year.

Sen. Lydia Edwards, who in 2014 helped advocate for the legislation's passage when she worked with the Massachusetts Coalition for Domestic Workers, recalled that at the time "there were real gaps in [the] understanding of what is care work, the value of it and that people who are doing it should even be paid."

"We found that they were being discriminated against, we didn't have infrastructure set up in our laws, and honestly, a lot of people just didn't know what they didn't know — a lot of employers simply didn't see them as workers, as employees, and treated them like they're a part of the family," Edwards said during a virtual event Thursday to release the report.

The law formalized a range of protections and labor rights for individuals paid to perform "work of a domestic nature within a household," including overtime pay, breaks and time off. Anyone who works 16 hours or more per week must be provided with a written agreement, in a language they can understand, outlining their rate of pay, responsibilities, breaks and off days and other key points.

Under the law, employers must also provide workers with a notice of the rights available to them and retain payroll records for at least three years.

More than three-quarters of Massachusetts workers surveyed had little to no understanding about the protections guaranteed to them under the 2014 law, with 38.6% describing themselves as having "no knowledge" of the law and 38% saying they are "slightly familiar" with it.

Roughly the same trend was in place among Bay Staters who employ domestic workers in their homes, 47% of whom said they had "no knowledge" of the law and 31% of whom are "slightly familiar."

The biggest factor in making workers aware of their rights was a constellation of worker centers and workers' rights organizations across the state. About 40 % of respondents said that's where they learned about the law; by comparison, only a bit more than 10% said their employer informed them about the law.

Since the law's effective date, the attorney general's office — which was held from early 2015 until last week by now-Gov. Maura Healey — has received about 214 complaints from someone who selected the "domestic worker law violations" option on a complaint form and brought enforcement actions against employers in 29 cases, according to the report.

Both the state attorney general's office and the U.S. Department of Labor told researchers they believe the number of complaints they receive from domestic workers "only represents a fraction of the actual number of labor violations" those individuals face. And based on surveys, authors said many workers fear retaliation if they file complaints.

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