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California Live-In Domestic Worker Fights for Rights and Wins Settlement

October 19, 2009

In recent California employment news, our Anaheim-based Labor and Employment Lawyers have been following the case of Vilma Serralta, a 71-year old California live-in housekeeper and nanny who recently filed a wage and hour lawsuit against her employers after enduring extensive state and federal wage law violations and exploitation in the workplace.

In the lawsuit, Serralta alleged that while working for Sakhawat Khan and his wife Roomy over the course of four years, she was paid between $1,000 to $1,300 a month--working 14-hour days, with no mandatory breaks, overtime, vacation or holiday time. She lived in the house with the family, and typically worked six days a week, regularly experiencing verbal abuse and a work environment that was hostile. During her employment with the Khans, they failed to keep any records of Serralta's working hours.

Originally from El Salvador, Serralta has limited English skills, and had no understanding of her rights to receive minimum wage and overtime wages until she was fired abruptly in September of 2006. While looking for new work at the San Mateo County Family Services, she was introduced to the legal services of La Raza Centro Legal, Inc. and the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center (LAS-ELC)--who took her employment complaint seriously, filing a lawsuit against the Khans in U.S. District Court for the violation of state and federal worker protection laws.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that domestic workers in California are some of the most vulnerable, with frequent complaints of California employment wage law violations. In the state of California, live-in domestics are rightfully entitled to receive a minimum wage hourly rate of $8, overtime pay after a nine-hour work shift, and after a five-day work week. These rights are hard to enforce, as homes are often isolated with no other workers or witnesses. Serralta fell into this category, as she had few witnesses to corroborate her employment claim, and limited documentation of the violations.

Serralta left El Salvador in 1977, and became a U.S. citizen in 1992. According to the suit, she worked around the clock in the nearly 10,000 square-foot home--cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, dusting and vacuuming, as well as caring for their small child. Serralta had worked for domestic employers many times before, but claimed that none of the jobs were as physically and mentally demanding as her four years with the Khans. According to Serralta she would occasionally sit down for a five or ten minute break, but Mr. Khan would observe her every move, making sure she was working.

The case took an unusual turn when the Khans, who denied ever violating state or federal wage labor laws, submitted a document from 2002 that appeared to have been signed by Serralta--limiting her eligible work hours and wage entitlement. The document was proven to be fraudulent, and the judge ordered that the jury translate this act as an indication that the Khans were guilty of the alleged violations.

Serralta had been seeking over $250,000 in unpaid wages, penalties, interest, and double damages, plus $700,000 in legal fees and costs. Serralta settled her suit for a confidential amount, but it is said to be substantial.

According to Christopher Ho, an LAS-ELC attorney, this case should prove to all employers that there are powerful laws that protect domestic workers, and any violation of these laws should be accounted for. Ho stated that these cases typically aren't brought at all, for fear of job loss or retaliation, but because Serralta was brave enough to talk publicly about her abuse, she was able to raise a civil prosecution against her employer and fight for her rights, as well as the rights for all domestic workers in the future.

In order to stand against the widespread violation of domestic worker rights, a national alliance has been formed to organize and develop strategies to improve workplace conditions. The West Coast National Domestic Worker Alliance (NDWA) Congress will take place in Oakland on November 13, 2009, where Ms. Serralta will be the featured speaker, to promote a better future for domestic workers' rights and protections.

If you or someone you know in Orange County or throughout Southern California has experienced domestic wage and hour abuse in the workplace, our team of experienced California employment attorneys and professionals can help. Contact us for a free consultation at 1-800-872-5925.

Live-In Domestic Worker Wins Settlement in Federal Lawsuit Against Wealthy Peninsula Couple, Ascribe: The Public Interest Newswire, October 14, 2009

Domestic Workers Vulnerable to Exploitation, San Francisco Chronicle, October 14, 2009

Vilma Serralta: An SF Worker's Victory Fuels Domestic Labor Movement, New American Media, October 15, 2009

Related Web Resources:

La Raza Centro Legal, Inc.

The Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center of San Francisco