Domestic Workers Empowered: The Legacy of Fahari Jeffers

Nov 26, 2019
10:10 AM

A 1977 photo shows Fahari Jeffers on the far left. (Photo by Carlos LeGerrette of the Chavez Service Clubs)

More than 40 years ago, the young life of Fahari Jeffers changed dramatically when she met Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).

Much like immigrant farmworkers who had been denied a decent life in the fields and communities of California’s agricultural valleys, privately-hired domestic workers were underpaid, if at all, and under-appreciated for the in-home care they provided.

All too often, their work was woefully under-compensated or not at all. Benefits were non-existent.

Together with her husband, Ken Seaton Msemaji, Jeffers co-founded the United Domestic Workers Union (UDW) in 1977 for home care workers, fulfilling a dream they shared with Chavez.

Thanks to their collective efforts, domestic/home care workers would eventually be recognized as employees by the State of California.

Their stories reflect the heartache and every-day travails of low-income wage-earners, usually people of color, such as the single mother who made the decision to quit her job to provide home care after an unexpected tragedy left her child with a disability.

And the devoted home-care provider who gives a frail senior citizen the opportunity to live out their years in their home.

A long-time resident of National City who recently passed away at age 65, Jeffers often recalled that Chavez warned her and her husband that fighting for the rights of domestic workers would take them the rest of their lives.



But their shared dream became a reality—and that’s the story that must not be forgotten.

As the daughter of a domestic worker, Jeffers vowed to help improve the status for domestic workers in California. Jeffers went on to make that dream her life’s work. At age 21, she completed her undergraduate degree and later, a law degree, again following Chavez’s wise advice.

Along with her husband, she created a workers rights organization from scratch with extremely limited funds, volunteers, and the kindness of Catholic groups.

There was no history, format or template that other unions could transfer to their new-found UDW because the category of domestic workers and home care aides was virtually unrecognized.

Statewide, there were tens of thousands of workers toiling anonymously and usually at less-than-minimum wages in private homes, apartments and condos.

It was as if they didn’t exist.

Initial progress came slowly, as she helped lay the foundation so that care work and domestic in-home services workers  could have a voice.

Jeffers wrote the legislation that became a California statute under Governor Gray Davis. That law (AB 1682) —signed in 1999— gave domestic workers who are in-home care workers in California’s In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program the ability to reach collective bargaining agreements, win increased pay and better terms of employment.

Prior to passage of AB 1682, only private IHSS domestic workers with agency contracts had collective bargaining rights because the rest did not have a defined employer of record other than the person they cared for.

Fahari’s steadfast efforts resulted in UDW growing from 8,000 members in 2001 to more than 70,000 members by June 2005 by expanding a public employer of record collective bargaining universe.

But Jeffers was challenged, again, this time by her health. In 2004, Jeffers suffered an aneurysm and soon retired.

She spoke proudly of her accomplishments in 2018 when she was inducted into the California Women’s Museum, San Diego County Women’s Hall of Fame.

Jeffers’ model collective bargaining rights law has become a model across California and the nation, where over 450,000 and 1.5 million home care workers respectively now enjoy union rights.

Asserting rights for our nation’s domestic workers gave way to the passage of the first-ever federal Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights in 2013.

In California —also in 2013— Governor Jerry Brown passed the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The bill provided the first guaranteed overtime pay for domestic workers and paved the way for improved working conditions of underrepresented domestic workers including nannies and caregivers.

Jeffers used her skills to win union contracts on the toughest uncharted American labor turf.

Thank you, Fahari Jeffers, for your caring devotion to those who care for others.

Richard Barrera, former UDW Regional Director and current San Diego Unified School Board Member
Sara Gurling, former UDW Organizer and Seaton-Msemaji Family Member
David Valladolid, former UDW Board Member and former Executive Director of Parent Institute for Quality Education