A Nannies’ Bill of Rights

A New York bill protecting domestic workers that would be the first of its kind.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt unveiled his plan for a federal minimum wage in May 1937, Southern planters grumbled that they’d be required to “pay your Negro girl 11 dollars a week.” Roosevelt knew his Fair Labor Standards Act would squeeze through Congress only with the approval of Southern Democrats, so he reassured the grumblers: “No law ever suggested intended a minimum wages and hours bill to apply to domestic help.”

The president stuck to his word. The Fair Labor Standards Act and other New Deal labor reforms excluded domestic workers—mostly women—and also farm laborers—mostly Latinos and blacks. They were denied a minimum wage, overtime pay, collective bargaining rights, and other protections. Domestic workers eventually secured the right to a minimum wage, in 1974. But the law still doesn’t consider them “employees.” Nannies, housecleaners, and caregivers are still not legally entitled to the same protections guaranteed to other workers.

For May Day, how about a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights? For six years, Domestic Workers United, an organization of Caribbean, Latina, and African housekeepers and caregivers, has been lobbying in New York for such a bill, which would be the first of its kind in the country. The proposed legislation would guarantee New York’s 200,000 domestic workers sick days, overtime, a day of rest, protection under discrimination laws, and notice before termination. It would extend these protections to undocumented workers, just as the Fair Labor Standards Act does. Last spring, the bill won Gov. David Paterson’s endorsement—and then Albany ground to a halt. This May, the bill will finally hit the State Senate’s floor.

Back in the 1930s, domestic workers’ pay fell to about 15 cents an hour, or $2.30 in today’s currency. Because FDR left them out of his reforms, domestic workers’ wages didn’t rise along with other pay rates. Through the 1940s, black women who’d traveled from the South waited at “slave markets” for white women looking to hire a domestic day laborer. New York had at least 20 of these markets. Far from their families, often without proper winter clothes, these migrants had no way to ensure that their employers would actually pay them at the end of the day.

Today, immigrants and other women of color still do a disproportionate share of paid domestic work for uncertain wages, little respect, and no security. Employers still tend to see their nannies and housekeepers as “help,” often refusing to hire on the books and insisting on paying in cash to avoid Social Security taxes. According to a 2008 survey of parents in Park Slope, Brooklyn, only 16 percent of employers filed Social Security taxes for their nannies, leaving them without Social Security, Medicare, and pensions. Housecleaners and caregivers simply remain far more at the mercy of their employers’ decency than other workers.

And decency only goes so far. One of Domestic Workers United’s members, Marina, was hired to care for a 13-year-old boy who was handicapped and wore diapers. Her boss paid her $2 an hour and told her to sleep in a basement where sewage overflowed. Marina cobbled together a cardboard walkway so she could pass between her bed and the door without trampling through feces. Her boss fired her without telling her why and made Marina leave the house the next day. As a Colombian immigrant with no family in the States, she had nowhere to go.

With the help of Domestic Workers United and the National Employment Law Center, Marina sued her former employers, and after a four-year legal battle finally won back pay. Her story is especially bad, but all domestic workers can be fired without warning or reason. Live-in workers are often on-call day and night: According to Domestic Workers United, 45 percent of New York City’s live-in caregivers work for 60 or more hours a week. Their pay tends to be meager, usually below the minimum wage. The same survey reports that in New York City, an overwhelming majority of domestic workers are immigrants and 76 percent are not citizens. When live-in workers do have documentation, their employers may have secured the visas. Employers have been known to take passports and stop immigrant workers from leaving the house.

Let’s assume that most people aren’t going to put anybody in a feces-covered basement or take an employee’s passport. Hey, let’s assume that most employers are honest and kind. Even then, when a housekeeper or nanny negotiates with her boss, she does it alone. She doesn’t have co-workers, the law, a union, or any sort of prestige to lean on. Negotiations between a domestic worker and employer are based on personal expectations, not codes.

I worked as a nanny in my early 20s. Sometimes my boss and I sprawled across her apartment’s hallway, absorbed in conversation and all but ignoring her 3-year-old daughter. My boss confided that she was ambivalent about motherhood. She felt guilty every morning she left her daughter to go to work, but she felt claustrophobic and resentful when she didn’t go. I listened to win her approval, which always felt just beyond my grasp. And I put up with an ever-fluctuating schedule. My boss would call last minute to rearrange my hours, and if I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid.

I knew I should tell her that I needed a set salary and schedule, but I felt disposable and was afraid of confrontation. Despite myself, I liked this mother and knew she was struggling. Were my grievances unreasonable? I didn’t know. I wasn’t living hand-to-mouth or sending money to my family in Guatemala. I was a citizen, white and college-educated. And even so, because my only “contract” was a vague conversation during my interview—when I was my most agreeable, of course—I found it hard to stick up for myself.

It’s no mystery why immigrant nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers have trouble demanding fair working conditions. The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights would give them legitimacy and a code to rely on. And it would give guidance to employers who want to treat their employees fairly, but aren’t always sure how. Come on, New York, let’s leave the 1930s behind.

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