By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
It's not a bad-sounding list of job benefits: starting pay at $14 an hour, employer-provided health insurance, four weeks of paid vacation after five years, and five weeks after 10 years. Add to that free lunches and generous time to hang out in Central Park. Plenty of working stiffs in this town would love to have it so good, including the nannies who are fighting for that list of job perks.
A proposed domestic workers' bill of rights, which cleared the State Senate labor committee last week, would provide all those benefits. The bill proposes a $12 minimum wage for domestic workers ($14 per hour by 2010), overtime pay, generous paid vacation and sick leave, advance notice of termination and severance pay. It also mandates an extra $2 hourly wage hike for nannies without employer-provided health insurance. If passed, it would be enforced primarily through the courts. Domestic workers would be able to file complaints with the Department of Labor or sue in civil court if their employers fail to provide any of these benefits. If employers are found to have willfully withheld some of these benefits, they could be charged with a misdemeanor crime.
Nannies are already becoming more emboldened to go to court for the one thing that they can sue for now: back pay. The non-profit Urban Justice Center has quietly helped a handful of nannies win an estimated $500,000 in unpaid wages from former employers. "The greater public knowledge, the more workers are coming forward," says staff attorney Haeyoung Yoon.
Among several recent cases was that of Encarnita Asuncion. After almost four years working as a nanny for a Park Avenue family, Asuncion abruptly left her job, claiming that she was regularly underpaid and, on one occasion, physically assaulted. She filed suit against her employers, Drs. Lynne Jacobs and Avery Scheiner. The family settled on May 29, giving Asuncion an undisclosed amount. Neither Asuncion nor her former employers would comment on the settlement.
While there are harrowing cases of rampant abuse, the main complaint among nannies is simply low pay and little job security. Such was the case for Dee, who did not want to give her last name for fear that it would prevent her from finding a new job. The 46-year-old nanny from Trinidad is still fuming that her employersa Wall Street executive and a music tutorfired her last month after she took a week off to have necessary surgery. "I told them I have a family too, and my kids don't want to see me dead!" Now she's fighting over her last paycheck, which she says was about $1,000 short in promised severance pay. Dee would not disclose her employers' names while there is still a chance that the dispute can be resolved amicably.
Supporters of nanny lawsuits and the domestic workers' bill of rights say that more protections are needed for workers who are often underpaid, overworked and sometimes abused. According to a survey by Domestic Workers United, the vast majority of New York's 200,000 domestic workers makes less than $14 an hour and do not have employer-provided health insurance. The survey also noted that 21 percent have been verbally abused and 1 percent physically abused by their employers. "This bill is about justice, it's about equity, it's about dignity and respect," says Assemblyman Keith Wright, who represents upper Manhattan and is sponsoring the bill. Although it's the third time around for the proposed legislationsimilar bills died in committee in the 2004 and 2005 legislative sessionsrecent headlines have renewed the sense of urgency. In May, a Long Island couple was arrested for holding two Indonesian domestic workers captive for years, paying them very little and regularly assaulting one of them.
While some employers support greater protections for nannies, there is a contingent of budget-conscious parents who wonder if the proposed domestic workers' bill of rights would bankrupt them. "Why should domestic workers get twice the minimum wage?" asked one mother on urbanbaby.com's chat board. Another mom wrote that the bill was "absurd," considering that "most of us don't even get three weeks of vacation. My nanny should get four?"