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Seattle’s New Domestic Workers Law: Rest and Meal Breaks

The city of Seattle recently followed eight states by passing a law designed to standardize the domestic work force (nannies, home health aides, house cleaners, and gardeners) thus bringing them out of the shadow economy of employees who have never received the same protections as other workers.  One glaring example is that by Washington law all employees are entitled to down time in the form of one 10-minute rest break per every four hours, and an uninterrupted meal break.  However, this is not something that is known to most employers of nannies as the industry has been unregulated for so long.

The good news is that the new law leans employer friendly, recognizing that in this unique industry employees often labor alone with little opportunity to take a structured break.  The exception for this industry comes in the form of an “on-duty meal break”.  More on that later.

Many employers are concerned that their costs will go up due to the new law and there is some misinformation out there as folks attempt to separate the truth from speculation.

The reality is that the unpaid meal break presents an opportunity for employers to reduce payroll costs by 2.5 hours per week, if they have circumstances that allow for an uninterrupted meal break where the nanny can be completely off duty (one or both parents work from home, have flexible schedules, or grandparents are visiting or live in or near the home).  The 10-minute rest breaks must remain paid.

Ai-Jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance, introducing the national bill in Washington D.C. last week.

The law does recognize that a nanny is often the only one present in the home, with no co-worker to relieve them and often no “work from home” parent or visiting relative as suggested above.  Therefore, the meal break may be taken while “on-duty.”

What does this mean exactly?  The nanny may have children who nap with regularity or attend pre-school or extracurricular activities, allowing consistent time for a 30-minute window to eat, catch up on email and conduct phone business.  During this type of break, the nanny must be paid for their time while they monitor the baby cam or remain on-call and required to return to work when called.  This is what the majority of employers already do.

Again, most employers already offer such opportunities.  They know their nanny can grab the occasional break here and there given the nature of the work.  What this law does is target the bad actors who do not recognize that during the day their hard-working nanny needs a break to recharge, eat, or use the rest room.

It is not uncommon to see an employer request that during “down time” such as children napping or attending other activities, the nanny keep busy with tasks such as folding laundry.  This law wants those families to know that during those quiet moments, the nanny is entitled to recharge without penalty.

Keep in mind that again, this law is targeting employers who do not allow for any breaks or outside contact with the world while their nanny is on duty.

The rest breaks – 10 minutes each – must be taken sometime within the first four hours of an 8 hour shift and sometime within the 2nd four hours of an 8 hour shift, factoring in that no worker shall be required to work more than three consecutive hours without a break.  They are to be uninterrupted.  This is time for the nanny to grab a snack, use the restroom, use their phone.

A nanny can waive their right to an unpaid, uninterrupted meal break but not the 10-minute rest breaks.  If the nanny cannot get an uninterrupted rest break, then the nanny is entitled to additional pay for each rest break missed.  These break periods are not just arbitrarily made up, they are based on public health analyses that have determined that it’s not safe for a person to work non-stop with no down time.

Back to the cost increase, and valid concerns that employers have around the affordability of childcare, the best way to address this is the way you have likely always addressed it.  That is, determine from the outset what your budget is and factor in extra costs such as taxes and payroll, as well as rest breaks.  If you cannot offer rest and meal breaks where the nanny is completely off-duty, then you can mitigate the cost increases by ensuring an “on-duty” meal break.  This is very likely what you are already doing and now there is simply framework around it that did not previously exist.

Whenever there is a new law our mind immediately goes to “how does this change impact me personally”?  I get this.  My company employs many caregivers and complying with this law will require some navigation.  However, the bigger impact will be on the industry as a whole as we experience a cultural shift in the way society views this type of work.

If we are willing to create better conditions for the people who work in our homes we will then attract more quality people to the profession, thus raising the profile of this type of work as a career choice.

Our families and children benefit when we value the workers who care for them.  Renowned labor activist Ai-Jen Poo said it best this last while introducing the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in Washington D.C. – “what could be more important [work] than nurturing the future potential of our children?”  Seattle is the first city (along with 8 states) to answer her question through action by creating protections for these workers locally.  The national bill of rights, when passed, will offer protections to these workers countrywide.

Emily Dills, Founder of, member of Hand in Hand Domestic Employer’s Network, Employer Entity member of Seattle’s Domestic Workers Standards Board with the Office of Labor Standards (OLS) 2019-2021

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