Domestic Disturbance

The Help Set Out to Help Themselves

Tonight, the women are especially fired up. Someone brought a plastic pitcher of sex-on-the-beach. And Campbell, the nanny from Grenada, shares a harrowing tale. Her 5-foot-10 frame sways dramatically as she describes escaping from within blocks of the collapsing World Trade Center with two toddlers and a stroller in tow. Her audience gasps appropriately. "We have a real hero here tonight," says one woman. Adds another, "See, her main concern was the kids. You can't put a price on that."

For talk tonight is of the low price most of them do get, especially now that times are tighter. "To fire you, everybody's blaming the World Trade Center," says a woman who was recently laid off. "Jobs are harder to come by," another chimes in. "If you can find work, it might be for fewer hours."

One woman was fired when her employers found out she was pregnant. It's a familiar story, one that prompts sympathy and promises of a baby shower.

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.

Another worker was fired, even after working on Thanksgiving to serve a dinner for 17. When she objected to working that day, she says her boss told her, "You are Jamaican, and it is not your holiday." The group erupts. "We're in America, why isn't this holiday being respected?" demands one woman. "Then give us all the Jamaican holidays off!"

As in many conversations among these nannies and housekeepers, reform becomes the central topic. The women's stories make clear how isolation and lack of regulation leave individuals with little recourse. The group wants a standard for the fair employment of domestic workers, one recognized by both employers and officials, so that it can function almost as an industry-wide contract. And in a several-years-long campaign, they have attracted the numbers, advocates, and official support they hope will help them achieve it.

"There are probably not tons of domestic workers who can afford to live on the Upper West Side," says Councilmember Brewer of her district. "I don't care. I'm very committed." She frames the measures she is about to propose in the broader context of women's and labor rights and plans to form a coalition to reflect that scope. In fact, the workers already have the support of the AFL-CIO's Central Labor Council and influential locals of the hotel and restaurant workers' and service employees' unions. A slew of women's and minority groups are also on board, as are prominent figures like Gloria Steinem.

A few of the workers were fired when their bosses learned of the rights campaign. But several showed their employers Domestic Workers United's suggested standards and received support and, in a couple of cases, a raise. Parent Eddie Rosenstein welcomes the idea of universal standards, saying, "I want things to be clear, so they don't mistrust me, and I don't get scared I'll get gouged." Moreover, he says, "As a decent employer, I'm getting the residual effect of bad employers, who've abused overtime, who've cheaped out."

Indeed, council proponents point out that the standards they are hoping to legislate essentially reinforce bare minimums. Opposition, they say, would be difficult to defend.

Even if they pass, the measures will still hardly revolutionize household employment. But the stamp of official support is a great deal more than the workers have had to this point. "I'm thrilled to be getting the City Council's backing," says organizer de Leon. "To me, it's a weapon already" in the battle to define domestics as workers with rights.

Special research: Sophia Chang; research: Joshua LeSieur

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