New UC Davis Documentary to Air on PBS

‘Dignidad’ Reveals Plight of Domestic Workers During Pandemic

A woman and child with the San Francisco city council building in the background. Both wear facemarks. The woman holds a cardboard sign reading "Domestic Workers are Essential #SB321"
Domestic workers rally in San Francisco, May 2021, in support of extending state worker protections to domestic workers. 'Dignidad,' a new documentary produced by the UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center, explores the struggles of domestic workers during the pandemic. (Jennifer Biddle/UC Davis)

A new documentary from the UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center will premiere on PBS stations beginning Saturday (Jan. 14).

Dignidad: California Domestic Workers’ Journey for Justice follows domestic workers in California as they organize for job protections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Viewers in the greater Sacramento area can watch the broadcast at 10:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19, on KVIE. It is also available for viewing on the PBS website.

“Domestic workers lack virtually any protections from arbitrary and unsafe working conditions,” said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, a professor of public health sciences and director of the Environmental Health Sciences Center. “This film highlights their struggle to achieve dignity, respect, and safe and humane working environments before and throughout the unprecedented COVID public health crisis.”

Hertz-Picciotto is the executive producer for the film. Jennifer Biddle, digital strategist at the Environmental Health Sciences Center, is the producer. Paige Bierma, an award-winning filmmaker and journalist, directed the documentary.

Dignidad is the second film for the team. Their previous documentary, Waking Up to Wildfires, premiered on PBS in 2019. Since then, it has been presented more than 300 times on 160 PBS stations and is currently available on PBS Viewfinder.

Kim Alvarenga, director of the California Domestic Workers Coalition, and domestic workers Mirna Arana and Rock Delgado are featured in the new film.

Arana fled deadly gang violence in Guatemala and resettled in California. She started working as a cleaner, where she experienced wage theft, and is now an activist with Mujeres Unidas y Activas. Delgado, a caregiver in Los Angeles, survived a severe bout of COVID-19 after being exposed on the job. He’s now an activist with the Pilipino Workers Center.

Their stories illustrate the struggles many domestic workers face in California. Domestic workers are predominantly female and people of color. Many are new immigrants. Laboring in other people’s homes often includes risks such as unsafe working conditions, exceedingly long hours, wage theft and other forms of abuse.

Exclusion from CalOSHA

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, is responsible for enforcing California laws and regulations related to workplace safety. In 2020, during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the California Legislature passed Senate Bill 1257 to extend Cal/OSHA protections to domestic workers.

Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill. In his veto message, Newsom said: “SB 1257 would extend many employers’ obligations to private homeowners and renters, including the duty to create an injury prevention plan and the requirement to conduct outdoor heat trainings. Many individuals to whom this law would apply lack the expertise to comply with these regulations.”

Domestic workers in the state organized in response to the veto. Dignidad touches on some of the Environmental Health Sciences Center’s research findings about the vulnerabilities faced by domestic workers during the pandemic. It also chronicles domestic workers’ efforts to pass a revised version of SB 1257, reintroduced by Sen. María Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, as SB 321, the Health and Safety for All Workers Act, which won the governor’s signature.

SB 321 did not fully bring domestic workers under Cal/OSHA standards, but it mandated the creation of an advisory committee comprising experts and public representatives to develop recommendations on protecting the occupational health and safety of domestic workers.

“It was heartening that after more than a century of having virtually no rights as workers, domestic employees are now recognized as needing occupational protections,” Hertz-Picciotto said. “While this new law does not actually guarantee those protections, it is a small first step toward that goal and toward the dignity domestic workers deserve.”

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