Domestic Disturbance

The Help Set Out to Help Themselves

Yet in Eddie and Randi Rosenstein's case, good intentions only stretch so far. With two young children, they had to move from Brooklyn's fashionable Boerum Hill to a first-floor rental in Ditmas Park. He is an independent filmmaker, she a pediatric physical therapist. Their income precluded even the cost of a nanny agency.

Through word of mouth, they hired a Caribbean woman who, Eddie Rosenstein says, "had this huge fear that we were these wealthy employers who were taking advantage of her." The nanny declined to be interviewed. Rosenstein gives an estimate of her salary, over $20,000 a year plus taxes. "This is all we can afford, period," he says. Their child care expense, including part-time day care for their older son, "is awesome," he says. "It's more than we used to make collectively." However, says Rosenstein, who is filming a documentary about low-wage workers, "As much as we're doing for her, I can imagine how hard it is to get by on what we're able to give her." He says the parents who pay less and expect more breed resentment that projects onto concerned employers like him.

Carolyn H. de Leon, an organizer who started her 10-year nannying career at $2 an hour, says she can sympathize with parents' financial crunch. "Many of us have children, too. We have even fewer options for child care." Yet in the families they work for, she says, "there is saving going on for college tuitions, for summer trips. Many of us cannot save one penny, even working all the time." She commends the parents who pay a living wage, but says, "we can't just count on getting good employers, because there are plenty of bad and ignorant ones."

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, the proposed council measures challenge some long-standing industry conditions—low wages and long hours, worker isolation, and lack of official concern—that keep employers in control. Despite fair and generous agreements, these circumstances nevertheless allow for thousands of working women to be overworked, underpaid, and sometimes abused. There is a moral imperative that, reformers hope, will deflate any opposition.

In fact, moral authority was all that a half-dozen members of Domestic Workers United brought to their first meeting with Brewer, on February 12. They could deliver few votes or donors. Most had never met an elected official.

Nahar Alam, an activist with six years in domestic work, gestures toward a friend seated next to her. She explains on behalf of the Bengali speaker, "She lost one job because she was sick. She was sick because she was working 18 hours per day. [Employers] are taking so much advantage. They hire, they fire. You cannot do anything. We get two, three dollars an hour. Immigrants in particular. Even if you have a green card, it doesn't matter."

Jacqueline Maxwell, an African American, adds that she has had similar problems. Moreover, paid vacations, sick leave, and health care are rare. Says Faye Roberts, who raised three daughters while working here, pregnancy or missing work to attend to one's own children can warrant a dismissal.

Verbal and physical abuse are more common than workers like to admit, say the women, and job security is a joke. Plenty earn less than the legal minimum, especially considering uncompensated overtime. And because no one is telling the employers to stop, the abuses go on.

The heartfelt pile-on gets to Brewer fairly quick. "You need backup," she says. "We will definitely move on this."

The women have won over a growing list of councilmembers, including Christine Quinn, John Liu, and Charles Barron, simply by recounting their own experiences. Bill Perkins, the council's deputy majority leader, says, "I'm on board by legacy." His grandmother, an African American, was a household worker.

"These people have historically been exploited, treated like peons," he says. Set to introduce his own bill proposing a living wage for certain service workers, he says of the pending domestic work package, "It helps to define us as an institution in a progressive way, in a way that's responsive not just to landlords or business interests or wealth, but also to those who are exploited, and whose exploitation is silent."

The officials did not even meet Estella Ngambi, who left her young son in Zambia and came to New York to support him. She keeps house for a tennis instructor for $350 a month, an amount she says she hasn't seen since December. She says she sleeps in his kitchen on a blanket, instead of on an air mattress reserved for guests. She has no friends to take her in, and no funds with which to escape.

Worse cases have appeared in recent years under headlines screaming "Modern-Day Slavery" and "Beatings and Isolation." Many of these involved third-world migrants brought into the U.S. on special visas by diplomats and financiers. These are extreme examples of how lack of legal status, especially combined with the restrictions of being a live-in worker, can leave domestics at serious risk.

Says Carol Pier, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has reported on special-visa domestics, "Migrant domestic workers with or without visas are often isolated, devalued by their employers, and invisible to government scrutiny." In immigration hubs like New York, they are believed to constitute a possible majority of the workforce.

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