Domestic Disturbance

The Help Set Out to Help Themselves

They picketed a midtown bank and an East Side embassy where their bosses worked, demanding unpaid wages through bullhorns. They brandished signs on a West Village sidewalk and before a picket fence in Queens, denouncing families for abusing and shafting their household workers. They organized in playgrounds, talked reform over dinners they cooked each other, and together mapped a road to a more dignified life.

But they were supposed to stay home.

They were supposed to be too tired from working 50, 60, or 80 hours a week. Too discouraged by earnings of a few hundred dollars a week or sometimes a month. Too frightened, because many of them are not supposed to be in this country, and none can afford to lose a job. The Nanny Diaries, a comic new novel by two NYU graduates who once worked on Park Avenue, has caused a sensation with its titillating trade secrets, but these ordinary workers are still struggling to expose the grimmer truths.

Carolyn H. de Leon (right), a former household worker, organizes nannies in Union Square.
Photo by Michael Kamber
Carolyn H. de Leon (right), a former household worker, organizes nannies in Union Square.

Indeed, a package of measures set to be introduced in the City Council this month is proof of a growing labor movement among New York's nannies and housekeepers. Too dispersed for a traditional union, these women have typically fended for themselves in the insulated, highly personal setting of private homes. The proposals, however, mark a peak in momentum that has been building for years, as the workers, who call themselves Domestic Workers United, have gained supporters and lobbied legislators. It will be the first time in history that the city acknowledges the special burdens of domestic workers and considers reforms to relieve them.

"This is a community whose rights, I feel very strongly, are not being protected," says Gale Brewer, the Upper West Side councilmember who has taken the lead in pushing proposals for a local law and a resolution, which requires a vote but lacks legal power. The community she speaks of could number in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Absent an official tally, industry observers look at estimates of Caribbean, Asian, Latino, and Eastern European immigrants, who make up the vast majority of workers, and numbers of potential employers.

The proposed law applies to placement agencies, which are estimated to transact about 50 percent of the city's domestic work for a commission of 10 to 15 percent of a worker's annual salary paid by those hiring. According to a recent draft, it seeks to establish a "code of conduct" reflecting basic labor rights such as a minimum wage, overtime, and Social Security payment—an indication of the profession's arrested state. Agency heads who failed to obtain employers' signatures acknowledging the code would face license suspension or revocation, a fine, or imprisonment up to one year.

Enforceable through the Department of Consumer Affairs, the law would "impose an official standard on agencies to impose standards on employers," says Brewer's chief of staff, Brian Kavanagh. "This gets rid of the ignorance defense" both plead, sometimes sincerely, when accused of flouting labor laws, he says. Agencies are not legally required to monitor how workers fare after placement, nor is there a mandatory grievance process. The head of one reputable Manhattan agency says a "very good rapport" with workers is her process.

The accompanying resolution would express a more radical vision of rights for all domestics, whether employed through agencies or on their own. A draft refers to "the rights of all workers to regularize their immigration status, [and] to organize." It calls for reforms to federal and state labor laws that currently exclude household workers and advances a set of "standard guidelines, "not only for wages and hours but also for benefits like vacation and sick days.

"If you've got councilmembers across the city agreeing that this is the standard, that should help to bring this issue to the attention of state and federal legislators, and . . . provide the basis to bring other people into the movement," says Kavanagh. Mistreated domestics, he says, could consider their local legislator to be an official advocate where none had existed before.

The actual penalties involved are fairly mild, leading council proponents to hope for a smooth passage. The measures would require little or no additional funding and demand no more than employment norms widely accepted in other industries. But the desired effect, say supporters, is no less than a sea change in the public's understanding of domestic workers' rights.

These workers include housekeepers, cooks, nannies, and the many who serve in between, yet the fair-pay question often raises the issue of child care affordability. Certainly the pending proposals will not resolve those daunting economics. The minimum legal cost of employing a household worker in New York City for 50 hours a week is about $14,000 a year plus taxes. Day care, while more affordable, is scarce and lacks the convenience of in-home care.

Many employers strive to pay more than the minimum, recognizing the near impossibility of surviving on such a sum. Jill and Bob Strickman-Ripps, who live and work out of two loft apartments in Tribeca, can do so more generously than others. She owns a casting company; he is a commercial photographer. They hired Eunice Easly at $350 a week in 1997, steadily raised her to $540—about $28,000 annually—and plan an increase for the additional care of their newborn son. The parents "are very fair," says Easly. They provide her with health insurance and paid her through the six weeks she needed to recover from a recent operation. "How else was she going to pay her rent?" says Jill Strickman-Ripps. "What's most important to us is that the person who cares for our children feel good about us."

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