Council member Marc Elrich was one of the bill's sponsors. (Gerald Martineau )
Montgomery County residents who employ nannies, housekeepers or cooks for at least 20 hours a week would be required to offer workers a written contract that spells out job conditions such as wages and benefits, under legislation passed yesterday that county officials said might be the first of its kind in the nation.
In most cases, residents would have to provide live-in help with a separate room, with a lock, for sleeping and "reasonable access" to a bathroom, kitchen and laundry room. The bill, approved unanimously by the County Council, would cover in-home domestic workers whose employment lasts at least 30 days.
The measure does not cover the hiring of nurses, child-care workers from overseas who are classified as au pairs or self-employed companions to elderly and disabled individuals.
Montgomery's Office of Consumer Protection would enforce the measure and could fine violators as much as $1,000.
The "nanny bill," as it became known on the council, is meant to clarify expectations between employers and employees and to protect from exploitation some of the county's most vulnerable workers, many of whom are immigrant women.
"I find it incredible that some people will trust others with their most precious possessions -- their families and their homes -- but then not fairly treat the employees who perform these domestic services," said council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), one of the sponsors.
County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who plans to sign the measure, said in a statement that it is "only right that the county reach out to let them know that they too have rights that deserve to be respected."
Before the vote yesterday, the outcome was uncertain as some council members worried that the measure would make it more difficult to hire such workers and that it would be open to misinterpretation by the public.
"I was concerned about the reputation of our institution and whether we would be deemed to be the nanny government of all time," said council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), prompting chuckles from some of his colleagues.
But he said he became convinced that the measure "threaded the needle of advancing important interests without overreaching."
Passage of the bill followed a three-year lobbying effort by a coalition of labor, religious and student groups, led by the immigrant advocacy group CASA of Maryland. Supporters celebrated the council's vote with resounding applause in the seventh-floor council chamber.
Under existing law, domestic workers are entitled to minimum wage and are supposed to receive overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours a week. Most, however, do not have the same rights to organize that federal law provides other workers.
A countywide survey, commissioned by the council, of about 300 domestic workers found that they have limited access to information about their rights. Just over half said they were paid less than Maryland's $6.15-an-hour minimum wage, and 75 percent said they did not receive overtime pay.
"We've worked hard for the protection and our rights," said Carmen Oliva, a former domestic worker from Peru who lives in Montgomery Village.
The bill was amended yesterday to exclude companions to elderly and disabled residents unless employed by an outside agency. In the case of an agency employee, a contract would be negotiated between the worker and the company, not the individual resident.
Changes to the bill came in part because members of Montgomery's Commission on Aging feared that it might discourage workers, particularly new immigrants, from seeking employment.
"Such prospective employees may well be wary of formal contractual relationships and unwilling to accept a position that requires a written contract," Irwin Goldbloom, chairman of the commission, wrote in a letter to the council.
Under the bill, employers would be required to offer to negotiate a written contract and to provide notice of the worker's rights under state law. If a worker declined to sign a contract, the employer would be required to obtain a written statement that a contract was offered and declined.
Berliner, who suggested the waiver, said it would prevent residents and workers who are comfortable with an "informal relationship" from being forced into "the inflexibility of a contractual relationship."
Advocates for domestic workers had initially pressed for mandatory paid vacation, health insurance and a minimum wage of $10.50 an hour. But the bill passed yesterday does not set such conditions, with the exception of the sleeping arrangements for certain live-in workers.
Some residents, such as Trudi Benford of Takoma Park, have long provided contracts for in-home help to prevent misunderstandings. Benford just signed her fourth six-page contract with her live-in nanny. In addition to pay and benefits, the contract includes monthly meetings and expectations for how the nanny maintains her basement apartment, such as keeping the dishes washed.
"The contract is like a bible that sort of guides us through the year," said Benford, who has twin 3-year-olds. "If you're going to hire a nanny, you need to treat them as professionals."
County officials said that they did not know how many workers would be covered by the measure but that they think it is the first in the country to require contract negotiations between domestic workers and individual employers.
A law enacted two years ago in Nassau County, N.Y., requires that agencies serving as clearinghouses for domestic workers provide employees with a "bill of rights" that puts working conditions in writing. New York City enacted a similar law in 2003.