A 69-year-old housekeeper has filed a federal lawsuit against an Atherton couple, claiming the pair engaged in illegal employment practices by requiring her to work long hours at far below minimum wage for four years. She is seeking $120,000 in damages.
The couple is denying the allegations, but not commenting further, said their attorney, Elizabeth Tippett of Palo Alto-based Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.
Vilma Serralta of San Mateo, who brought the suit, led a group of domestic workers in a protest march along Isabella Avenue in Atherton on Thursday, March 13, that culminated in a press conference in front of the home of Sakhawat and Roomy Khan. The 9,400-square-foot home is currently on the market with an asking price of $17.9 million.
Ms. Serralta said that as a live-in domestic worker for the Khans for four years, she worked 13- and 14-hour days, six or seven days a week, without being paid overtime, or even minimum wage.
"It is the responsibility of anyone who decides to employ someone to learn the basics of employment law," said Carole Vigne, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center in San Francisco. "Clearly, her employers are sophisticated people. We don't have too much information about (them), but we do know they work from home and appear to run their own business."
Ms. Vigne said damages owed to Ms. Serralta amount to at least $120,000. She was paid a monthly salary of $1,000 to $1,300, amounting to hourly wages of less than $3 to $4 per hour, far below the California minimum wage of $6.75 per hour, Ms. Vigne said.
While Ms. Serralta is a U.S. citizen, California labor laws apply to everyone, regardless of immigration or citizenship status, said Ms. Vigne.
In Ms. Serralta's complaint, filed in the Northern District of California federal court on March 13, she said she worked long hours cleaning the Khans' large home, preparing meals and caring for their young daughter. She said the Khans yelled at her and called her "stupid," but she stayed because she had grown attached to the child, Ms. Vigne said.
It was only after she was arbitrarily fired in September 2006 that Ms. Serralta learned that her treatment was illegal, Ms. Vigne said.
Language barriers and cultural differences are among the reasons many domestic workers are unaware of their rights or are afraid to complain, Ms. Vigne said.
"Also, because they work in private homes and don't have coworkers, there is just the isolation from other people. That condition is worsened when they are working such long hours and they live in the home," she said.
Ms. Vigne said it's likely that Ms. Serralta's situation is not terribly different from that of many other domestic workers in wealthy communities such as Atherton. The lawsuit and the protest march, it is hoped, will shine a light on similar situations going on behind closed doors, she said.
"I do not want revenge. I simply want justice. And I do not want for anyone else to go through what I did," Ms. Serralta said in a press release.