New UC Davis documentary set to air on PBS

‘Dignidad’ reveals plight of domestic workers during pandemic


A new documentary from the UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center (EHSC) will premiere on PBS stations beginning 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 on Thursday, Jan. 19 at 10:30 PST on KVIE. It is also available for viewing on the PBS website.

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

Hertz-Picciotto is the executive producer for the film. Jennifer Biddle, digital strategist at EHSC, 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 aired 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.

Mirna 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. Rock 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 persons 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 Cal/OSHA

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 SB 1257. The bill was designed to extend Cal/OSHA protections to domestic workers.

California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill. In his statement, 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.”

Irva Hertz-Picciotto
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.”Irva Hertz-Picciotto

Domestic workers in the state organized in response to the veto. “Dignidad” touches on some of the EHSC research findings about the vulnerabilities faced by domestic workers during the pandemic. It also chronicles domestic workers’ efforts to pass a subsequent bill introduced by California Senator María Elena Durazo: the Health and Safety for All Workers Act (SB 321).

In 2021, Governor Newsom, after amending the bill, signed SB 321 into law. The measure did not fully bring domestic workers under Cal/OSHA standards. However, it mandates the creation of an advisory committee comprised of members of the public and experts 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. 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,” Hertz-Picciotto said.