Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Nannies Are Doing It For Themselves

May 15th, 2003 | Paula Brantner

Yesterday (5/14) was a landmark day in New York City and perhaps even for the country at large, as the New York City Council passed the first legislation of its kind in the nation giving domestic workers rights, such as making them aware of labor laws regarding salary, benefits, and vacations. The bill, Int. 96-A, requires that employment agencies notify nannies and other live-in workers in writing about their responsibilities, wages, and expected hours. Families hiring domestic workers through an agency must sign an agreement that they are aware of the domestic workers’ rights regarding minimum wage, overtime pay, and Social Security. Violations can bring a $1,000 fine and one-year prison sentence. (See Christian Science Monitor article.) West Side Councilmember Gale Brewer, who drafted the legislation, said it was a concrete way to help bring “dignity and respect” to the city’s estimated 600,000 domestic workers who are often overlooked or mistreated. (See Stated Meeting Report.)

Passage of the new legislation was largely the result of the hard work of many domestic workers themselves. Domestic Workers United (DWU), a grassroots group of nannies, housekeepers, and elder-care givers, was the primary group pushing the bill forward. The new legislation is the culmination of DWU’s campaign, which begain over a year ago, called Dignity for Domestic Workers. DWU organizers visited parks around the city where domestic workers bring their charges, and urged them to tell their stories and write letters in support of the legislation, facing many challenges. “It’s really hard to galvanize domestic workers, because we’re dispersed in isolated homes and sometimes working 11, 12 hours a day,” said Carolyn H. de Leon, a former household worker who is a founder of DWU. (See Village Voice article.) DWU’s campaign also drew little attention from policy makers at first. When first starting their campaign, they had trouble merely confirming that councilmembers were receiving their letters, as they continued to barrage legislators’ offices with information about subminimum wages, long hours, and sexual and racial harassment. But DWU and its allies persevered until they had the backing of the City Council and Mayor Michael Bloomberg

The bill contains a set of very basic protections often denied domestic workers. The bill requires domestic-work placement agencies to inform applicants of job conditions in writing. Most important, agencies would have to obtain a signed acknowledgment from a hiring family that it understands rules concerning wages, hours, Social Security, and other basic obligations. Under current law, these workers are to receive overtime after 40 hours a week, unless they are live-ins, who are entitled to time-and-a-half overtime pay after 44 hours. The federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour covers all domestic workers.

The emphasis on documentation speaks to the lack of formality in the private-home-based industry, which impedes wronged workers and, sometimes, employers from proving their claims. Agencies would have to keep copies of these records for no less than three years. Under the law, enforceable through the Department of Consumer Affairs, violators could be fined as much as $1,000 and possibly be imprisoned up to one year. Advocates for domestic workers said the bill should help stop the many abuses faced by these workers. Many domestic workers complain about being paid for 40 hours’ work when they work 50- or 60-hour weeks. Some also complain about having to work seven days in a row, about not being given any paid vacation and about not having private rooms when they are live-ins. (See New York Times article.)

The measure will now provide some protection for an estimated 600,000 domestic workers live in the New York City area. Most are immigrants, who are often not aware of labor laws or are scared to challenge employers out of fear of losing their jobs or visas. One of the domestic workers who testified before the City Council is Justina Dumpangol, a Maylasian native, who worked for a New York family 2-1/2 years ago. She told the Council of her experience of being pushed down basement stairs by a child she was caring for and left lying semiconscious until an ambulance was called. “He locked the door behind me, and I was there for a very long time,” says Ms. Dumpangol. That moment marked the beginning of what the Malaysian native calls a period of “abuse, exploitation, and humiliation.” When Dumpangol tried to complain about her working conditions to the agency that had placed her, she says she was told she was too old (59 at the time) to be choosy about her jobs.

Ms. Dumpangol’s story, unfortunately, is not atypical. In a study of immigrant domestic workers released in June 2001, the organization Human Rights Watch detailed some of the horrors faced by domestic workers who hold special temporary visas to work as live-in migrant domestic workers.

In the worst cases, the domestic workers are victims of trafficking-deceived about the conditions of their employment, brought to the United States, and held in servitude or performing forced labor. They work up to nineteen hours per day; are allowed to leave their employers’ premises rarely and virtually never alone; are paid far less than the minimum wage, sometimes $100 or less per month; are ordered not to speak with individuals outside their employers’ families; and are psychologically, physically and/or sexually abused. In these cases, workers’ isolation is so extreme and the culture of fear created by their employers through explicit threats and/or psychological domination is so great that the workers believe they will suffer serious harm if they leave their jobs and have no choice but to remain in and continue laboring in abusive conditions.

Although this description represents the most extreme cases, HRW also found that workers suffered one or more forms of abuse in the vast majority of employment relationships examined. Workers were commonly paid significantly below the minimum wage and worked long hours, with the median hourly wage in the cases reviewed $2.14 (including deductions for room and board) or only forty-two percent of the median federal hourly minimum wage of $5.15. The median workday was fourteen hours. Workers were also rarely free to leave their employers’ homes without permission, resulting in the imposition of myriad restrictions on their freedom of movement, most often only being allowed to leave the employers’ premises on their days off. (See HRW Report Summary.)

This legislation has been a long time in coming. During the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, legislators argued that they were household workers rather than industrial employees and did not require the same protections, said Phyllis Palmer, professor of American civilization and women’s studies at George Washington University. During the 1970s, Social Security and minimum wage laws extended to nannies. But legalizing this work has pushed much of nannies’ pay off the books, Palmer said. “They’re completely wage laborers and yet they’re still being treated as wards of the family,” she said. “The fact that this is just paid employment vanishes in this beautiful romantic picture of caring for children.” (See Washington Post article.)

The bill is not perfect: it does not apply to those domestic workers who are not hired through employment agencies, but rather through word-of-mouth or personal connections. One critic, agency owner Clifford Greenhouse, said the measure would do little for domestic workers because only a small percentage of them are placed by employment agencies. “The licensed agencies are placing people in positions that far exceed the legal standards, even double or triple,” he said. “This legislation is asking the agencies to police the very people that are paying our fees. They’re also asking families to commit to very rigid job specifications which change almost daily in a private home.” However, this legislation is an important start, and the Domestic Workers Union’s success will undoubtedly inspire other similar movements around the country to improve conditions for domestic workers.

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