The Heart of the Work

Professionals Navigating a Personal World

Levine declined to put the Voice in touch with Annie, who she said was in her seventies and in poor health. But other household workers invariably say, no matter how warm the friendship, when push comes to shove, they are employees. "We're not equals," says one, "we're working."

Five days a week, Annie arrived before 8 a.m. and usually worked until 6 p.m., says Levine, who is married to an entertainment lawyer. With regular raises, Annie retired several years ago earning about $20,000, or less than $8 an hour.

Bonding, part of a caregiver's job, can complicate the business side.
photo: Michael Kamber
Bonding, part of a caregiver's job, can complicate the business side.

"That's the work of several people, but not enough pay for one," says one domestic told about Annie. Yet even lower wages are common. In 2000, half of family child care providers surveyed nationwide earned under $4.82 an hour and typically worked 55 hours a week, according to an analysis of federal data by the nonprofit Center for the Child Care Workforce in Washington, D.C. Housekeepers, considered to be less skilled, usually earn less than caregivers, although those roles, as in Annie's case, can overlap. Wages in New York are higher than elsewhere, but so is the cost of living, and a large number of the workers here are presumed to be undocumented and earning substandard pay.

This low-wage work is done almost entirely by women, and largely by women of color. The D.C. center reports that 98 percent of child care providers are female, and they are often of racial minorities and mothers themselves. Industry experts believe more women in New York may work in households than in any other field.

No doubt many an at-home mom could confirm what scholars contend: The paltry pay reflects society's longstanding failure to value domestic labor as taxing or income-worthy. That lack of recognition has everything to do with the work's intimate quality. Not only does caretaking continue to be seen, post-feminist movement, as a natural and therefore effortless talent of women, but there are shades of slavery in demands for employee devotion that exceed compensation. Chicago-Kent College of Law professor Peggie Smith has painstakingly researched how government denials of rights to household workers were based on sexist or racist arguments. Until 1974, domestics were not entitled to the federal minimum wage, and they are still excluded from laws like the one that protects union activity.

Handicapped by history, workers are also burdened by the unreasonable emotional demands of some employers, says Carol Bandini, a psychoanalyst and co-author of Child Care for Love or Money?, a guide based on 85 interviews with local families and caregivers. "We take for granted what women do. We all want to be taken care of, to be cared for. But we don't want to pay for it, we want it to be given out of affection," she says. An employer's longing for a wife-mother-servant figure, someone duty-bound to nurture, can doom an employee seeking fair return for her labor.

Especially when children and genuine caring are involved, workers say, complaining about salary or duties can seem coldly mercenary or just plain awkward. Says nanny Vincent, "A lot of the nannies, they love the kids, and that's why they put up with bad pay, with parents being rude. We're only human. The parents take advantage of that."

Nannies who do speak up may encounter another daunting assumption—that caring for employers' children is a priceless joy. Says Bandini, "It's one of the reasons they're low-paid. The parent feels envious of the caregiver—'Why should I give them so much money for the pleasure of being with my child?' " If that envy grows extreme, a worker could actually be fired for getting too close to her charge, Bandini says. "If she does a good job, she's damned. If she doesn't, she's damned. It's difficult to live inside a paradox."

Some domestics live inside a different paradox, where what they do is viewed not so much as work as payment on a personal debt. In a profession so closely associated with family or old-fashioned servant roles, the worker in this case is something of a poor maiden aunt. Levine, the former Ms. editor, acknowledges her domestic Annie's position "was certainly a low-salary job. She would be here sometimes long hours." But before she was hired, Annie had been cleaning several homes a week for far less than the $20,000 she ultimately made, says Levine. "I think she would say what happened was, we liberated her from the worst years of her life."

Without input from Annie, it is impossible to be sure, although her long tenure suggests she was satisfied. However, Mary Romero, herself a former housekeeper and now professor at Arizona State University, takes a dimmer view. "Employers always want to cast themselves as caring for the less fortunate," she says. "There's real resistance to thinking that whatever they pay results in a standard of living for the workers."

In the upcoming revision of her book Maid in the U.S.A., Romero shares her own degrading experiences and denounces people like Linda Chavez, who was, ironically, George W. Bush's pick for labor secretary until it was revealed she was harboring an undocumented Guatemalan woman. Chavez defended the arrangement as charity, claiming she donated shelter and pocket money and the Guatemalan thanked her by doing chores. Romero doesn't buy that, and Chavez withdrew amid criticism from others who didn't, either. "This is the only occupation I've ever heard of where the employer will give an employee their old clothes and expect gratitude for it," fumes Romero.

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