Domestic Disturbance

The Help Set Out to Help Themselves

Fear of deportation, language barriers, and ignorance of U.S. laws keep undocumented workers earning less and working longer hours, often at more physically demanding jobs. The government offers them little relief, banning them even from collecting food stamps, although they are covered under minimum wage and overtime rules.

As a result, they can end up earning "pennies," says Maurice Wingate, president of Best Domestic, one of Manhattan's largest agencies, which does not place the undocumented. "I've heard of situations where they just work for room and board. They end up taking what they can get. They are subject to harsher violence and unfair treatment."

Says Carla Vincent, a nanny who works here to support an eight-year-old daughter in Trinidad, "parents really take advantage" of women like her. Her first job in New York paid $225 per week in 1998 for live-in child care, housekeeping, and cooking. "I would have to wait until they were finished eating and then eat. Then she wanted me to meet her in the Hamptons, and I would be responsible for my own traveling expenses."

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.

There are many women in her situation, she says, "every second nanny that you meet. We give up a lot, and it's only because you can better support your children from here than if you were home. There are no jobs down there."

Even for those without immigration worries, the fluid boundaries of domestic work can allow for exploitation. Job titles and stated duties are often mere formalities. "Quite frankly, some parents will place a job order saying they want a nanny, and they'll kind of leave out the housekeeping aspect. They start with making the beds, then it goes to sweeping the floors, then to mopping, then before you know it, you've got a person doing nannying and housekeeping," says Wingate.

He says the best-paid domestics can earn upwards of $800 a week. But the U.S. Department of Labor, without data on undocumented workers, puts the median weekly wage for family child care workers at $265, for a 35-hour week. In New York, that sum would fall below the $5.15 hourly minimum, if a more typical 50-hour week and overtime rules were factored in.

Even the worker who enjoys above-minimal conditions should not rest easy, says Ann Campbell, a nanny from Grenada with a job situation she calls "very rare." She nets $500 after taxes for an approximately 40-hour week, strictly for live-out child care. Finding a decent job, she says, "is based on luck, finding the right person to work for. It's not based on how well you do your job. Even though I'm in a good situation now, you never know."

The law does not necessarily guarantee a decent job. Domestics are excluded from many basic labor rights, including the right not to be fired for collective organizing. Laws prohibiting discrimination based on race and sex usually apply only to workplaces with multiple employees. While their history is complex, these exclusions are essentially based in traditional notions of women's work and servitude.

State and federal labor agencies do not actively monitor household workers' conditions, although all are entitled to their help in recovering minimum wage and overtime pay. However, spokesman Robert Lillpopp says the state Department of Labor has no record of how many domestics have actually sought such aid. A U.S. labor official, speaking on background, says the department's New York City office receives six to 12 domestic worker wage and hour complaints a year, most from third-party advocates.

"We do not get as many complaints as we think we should," says the official. And when inspectors follow up, he says, they find that "these are employers who are very difficult to deal with. Trying to get it done without jeopardizing the individual's work environment—making sure the employer doesn't take any kind of retaliatory action—makes it difficult."

In New York City, the Department of Consumer Affairs monitors the businesses that place an estimated 50 percent of domestics. But spokesman John Radziejewski says labor conditions are the Department of Labor's responsibility. If DOL were to notify DCA of problems, he says, "we would take them under consideration." Lawyers supporting the domestic workers group say, however, that DCA cannot absolve itself of worker responsibility. The group hopes the pending reforms and a newly vigilant City Council will spur more rigorous oversight.

Domestics can file private lawsuits. But according to Ranjana Natarajan, who handles such suits as a staff attorney at NYU's Immigrant Rights Law Clinic, no more than a dozen such complaints were brought in the city over the past several years. Lawsuits require that workers know their rights to begin with, she says, and they can be intimidating, costly, and drawn out.

"So many employers count on the fact that it's such a privatized industry," says Natarajan. Collective action, she says, is key. "The biggest factor is that workers feel secure and have some sense of support."

Among the few dozen women gathered over potluck one late December night in Brooklyn, support is all any of them can afford to give generously. Here, in a Fort Greene space donated by a community organization, Domestic Workers United hosts parties, nanny trainings, and reform planning sessions that have drawn several hundred over the past few years.

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