By Anna Merlan
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"I've been hearing about this for a long time," said Eunice, her gaze locked on a two-year-old playing with friends nearby. Around her in sunny Washington Market Park in Tribeca last Tuesday morning were some 20 other nannies, chasing after, soothing, or feeding their tiny charges. Eunice's eyes widened when the representative from Domestic Workers United (DWU), a grassroots group of nannies, housekeepers, and elder-care givers, told her that some of the labor protections long talked about in their circles were on the brink of becoming city law. A measure DWU had been seeking for over a year was nearing a final vote in the City Council.
"I'm well paid, about $600 per week. And I have three months' paid vacation per year," said Eunice, who with 16 years' experience found her current position through an agency. But she nodded as Marella, a friend seated next to her on a low stone wall under the trees, said many others are less fortunate, especially as wages and job openings decline with the economy. (Both withheld their full names, citing the importance of discretion to their employers.)
"Agencies work in the employers' favor, not for us," said Marella. "They ask you to do things you don't want to do. You have to accept any conditions, or you won't get anything." She said she learned proper wage and responsibility thresholds through trial and error, not through the agencies. "We need this," she said, waving the flyer she had just received on city Intro. 96-A, "to protect people who are just starting out."
The bill would require domestic-work placement agencies to inform applicants of job conditions in writing. Most important, agencies would have to obtain a signed acknowledgment from a hiring family that it understands rules concerning wages, hours, Social Security, and other basic obligations. The emphasis on documentation speaks to the lack of formality in the private-home-based industry, which impedes wronged workers and, sometimes, employers from proving their claims. Agencies would have to keep copies of these records for no less than three years. Under the law, enforceable through the Department of Consumer Affairs, violators could be fined as much as $1,000 and possibly be imprisoned up to one year.
Though the labor standards highlighted in the bill are basic, the measure would be historic if passed. No other municipality in the country has ever legislated to protect domestic workers' rights. The text of the bill begins, "The placement of domestic or household employees into the homes of employers creates special problems, including the risk of abuse and exploitation. The majority of domestic or household employees in New York City are immigrant women of color who, because of race and sex discrimination, language barriers and immigration status, are particularly vulnerable to unfair labor practices."
DWU organizer Erline Brown, herself a nanny, urged Eunice and Marella to attend the May 2 hearing of the City Council Civil Service and Labor Committee, where members of the public would be testifying for and against the bill. But the women said they could not get out of work. "It's really hard to galvanize domestic workers, because we're dispersed in isolated homes and sometimes working 11, 12 hours a day," said Carolyn H. de Leon, a former household worker who is a founder of DWU.
Workers who were able to attend had two minutes each at Friday's hearing to speak about their struggles. One, Justina Dumpangol, sparked deep concern from committee memberswho urged her to look into the possibility of litigationwhen she spoke of being locked in a basement by an employer's son, and of being told by a job placement agent that she was too old and therefore could not be choosy about her work conditions.
The sympathy of elected officials was a major shift from when DWU began its rights campaign, dubbed Dignity for Domestic Workers, over a year ago. Then, organizers said, they had trouble merely confirming that councilmembers were receiving their letters. They barraged legislators' offices with information about the subminimum wages, long hours, and sexual and racial harassment.
But as of Friday, these workers had the backing not just of 35 of 51 councilmembers, with more likely to follow, but also, after many months of negotiations and a few compromises in legal wording, of the mayor. "The department and the administration strongly support the enactment" of the bill, said assistant consumer affairs commissioner Pauline Toole.
Some councilmembers spoke of Intro. 96-Awhich addresses placement agencies but not the sizable number of workers believed to find jobs on their ownas just a beginning to wider reform. Workers praised Upper West Side councilmember Gale Brewer for pioneering the legislative effort when its popularity hardly seemed assured. She in turn explained the measure's probable success as the sum of DWU's persistent lobbying and the openness of "the new City Councila group of people that thinks about ways in which people's lives can be improved and knows the right thing to do."
Despite the opposition of placement agencies, the committee on Friday unanimously opted to move the bill to a councilwide vote, likely at the next general council meeting on May 14. The council will also vote on an accompanying resolution, which calls for the changing of federal and state labor laws to end long-standing exclusions of domestic workers from collective bargaining and other rights. The resolution also would establish an annual citywide Domestic Worker Recognition Day.