The Heart of the Work
It was billed as the kind of routine function where constituents complain and politicians nod. But by the end of the three-hour town hall, hardly a speaker had kept from breaking down, and one City Council aide, clad in suit and tie, choked into the microphone, "I can't even explain to you how I feel right now, how disturbed and troubled."
To the surprise even of organizers, the April 6 event, showcasing a household workers' rights bill pending in the council, crescendoed into a sort of group catharsis. Some of the nannies and housekeepers who testified whispered through tears. Others sobbed. The moderator, clutching a tissue, announced at one point, "If anyone wants to share something, come up here. I mean, this is nakedness."
The facts by themselves were not horrifying. No one mentioned physical violence or hazards of the extent some industrial workers face. A live-in housekeeper said she lacked privacy where she slept and was not allowed to use a fan because of the electrical expense. One woman described working more than 10 hours a day for under a dollar an hour. Another said she guessed her current salary of $250 a week was better than her previous $250 a month, but then she was unable to go on and abruptly left the floor.
What gripped listeners more than the detail was the depth of emotion. It seemed there was something about cuddling people's babies and making their beds that sharpened the usual stings of a crummy job into arrows. Indeed, as the women spoke, it became clear that domestic labor involves an intimacy that sets it apart. The private setting and personal nature of the job not only create a climate for exploitation, but also enable indignities not found in other, more public kinds of work.
There was the woman, for instance, who worked as a nanny on Park Avenue for "a decent wage," private living quarters, and a food allowance. "On a scale of one to 10, my working conditions were an eight," she said. Yet she told of a pattern of put-downs that culminated on her birthday: "My employer forgot to give me my lunch break. I got a bagel from her bread keeper. She screamed at me for eating her bagel." Pause. "I loved the boys. But the humiliation . . . "
A domestic and the people she works for can grow very close, says Upper West Side employer Suzanne Levine. A woman whose real name Levine asks be changed to Annie cooked and cleaned for her family and cared for her two children for nearly 20 years.
"We went to all her children's weddings. She came to all our family things, knew all our family secrets. She mothered us, she was very important to us. She was absolutely wonderful," says Levine. Annie, mother of three and about 10 years Levine's senior, knew more about child care than her boss. The children were "so lucky to have her," says Levine. She laughs, "When I came home, everything would fall apart."
Some workers also speak of that kind of familiarity. Family events and troubles are shared, advice exchanged in both directions. Employers might offer a special gifta typewriter, for instance, for a worker's child starting collegeor aid navigating legal labyrinths like the INS.
But the tightest bond inevitably forms between a caregiver and her charge. Nanny Carla Vincent cares for the 17-month-old twins of a family she lives with here, to support her own daughter who visits from Trinidad in the summers. "All the love I have for her, I pour into my employers' kids," she says. "It is exactly the same feeling; you really do feel like they're your own. You defend them the same. I have yet to meet a nanny who can separate her feelings from the child."
Says another, "You are with a child from infancy to when you have taught her how to look up and down before crossing the road. They turn into little people, and you're building their self-esteem, preparing them for the next adventurous time in their lives. You're just not there for the next stage."
It is rare for a worker to stick with one employer as long as Annie did with Levine, a seeming testament to their closeness. When tending to a family's most personal needs, for 20 years no less, caring goes with the job. Even the most astute employer, however, can fail to see the labor in the love.
"As a feminist with an overweening sense of sisterhood, I think it's possible I imposed too much intimacy with somebody who was just trying to do her job," says Levine, who was the editor of Ms. magazine from 1972 to 1987. "[Annie] was always aware that I was her employer. It was always a big surprise to me, when that turned out to be at the heart of a problem, because I thought we were so beyond that."
Levine recalls, "Annie would come on vacation with us. I thought she was glad to come. On the other hand, that meant she was on duty for five or six days around the clock. I always felt bad about that. I know a lot of people do. I don't know how you deal with that."
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.
"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 assumptionthat 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.
Advocates say the labor-as-a-favor guise is common here, and so some women, especially immigrants without legal status or English skills, work for next to nothing. A Brooklyn Haitian organization reports getting calls from people offering to board a woman if she would work for free. Says Romero, "It's a throwback to feudalism and slavery."
Such patronizing attitudes toward caretakers have more troubling ramifications still when the employee belongs to an ethnic group already subject to prejudice. It is no wonder that domestic work carries such stigma. Erline Brown, a nanny, says, "I have been out with the kids, and I have had people call me names for the work that I do." A Barbadian Brit with braids, she says she's been told, "You're an Aunt Jemima." Employer Levine says balancing her employee's status relative to the family, "because Annie was white . . . was easier." But in many cases, relations with household workers are, for better or worse, children's first encounters with American racial dynamics.
The association of inferiority with race is not just metaphor. Housework was for many decades the only field where most African American women could get hired. As other areas opened to them and to the European immigrants who also did the work, women from the Caribbean, Asia, and Latin America replaced them. There were involuntary migrants, too: A State Department analyst reported in 1999 that over 45,000 women and children, nearly all from the third world, were trafficked into the U.S. each year, most for sex work but many for domestic labor in top destinations like New York. In less overt forms of coercion, employers might confiscate passports or threaten to call the INS on an undocumented worker.
Moreover, racism in hiring leaves the most back-breaking, low-paid work to minorities, says Julia Wrigley, a City University of New York sociologist, drawing from over 150 interviews with families and employees. "Women of color are often assigned very stigmatized tasks, like cleaning up after dogs or providing table service to their employers," she says, while white women are more likely to be hired strictly for child care.
But domestics can't sue based on discrimination. Most relevant laws exempt household and other small employers. Law professor Smith says these exemptions were created when employers argued that in intimate settings, conflicts could be more personal than professional.
The emotional testimonies of workers at the April 6 town hall showed that intimacy has a considerable dark side. The personal interaction that might make a good job more enjoyable could make a bad one humiliating. The women could have made no better case for legislating labor rights. As Councilmember Christine Quinn, a leading sponsor of the workers' rights bill, said, "A domestic worker quite literally could never see anybody but the employer for days on end. There are probably many more good employers than bad, but the job of government is to make sure everybody is protected."
A formal structure is better even for the best employers, says Jean Kunhardt, co-director of the Soho Parenting Center. "I tend to see [parents] who are so guilt-ridden, they overcompensate by cooking meals for their nannies, paying for college courses. I often say, 'This is an employer-employee relationship. You're not adopting somebody in the family.' "
And perhaps worst for both sides, in the absence of decent standards there is frequent turnover. The D.C. child care organization found annual rates among caregivers nationwide hovering at between 30 and 40 percent. Not surprisingly, its research showed that fair wages based on merit helped retain experienced workers.
"This is a valuable service we're providing," says nanny Brown, "and it's a pleasurable job." One housekeeper, who says others see her job as pure drudgery, finds "satisfaction in creating beauty out of chaos." But, wonders Brown, "why should we stay in a job with no benefits, where our employers sometimes don't even acknowledge us when we say good morning? The industry is losing the crème de la crème of professionals. When we're seen as doing a real job, we'll stay."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.