Hard Knocks


Nearly a year after their last encounter, a Malaysian domestic worker braces to confront a former employer who the worker says is responsible for injuries she incurred on the job. On the eve of a December 12 demonstration, Justina Dumpangol and a group of fellow domestic workers are planning to present psychologist June Spirer with a “Snake of the Year” award at her West Village office for what they call her mistreatment of Dumpangol.

“I’m not the same person as I was before,” explains the 60-year-old housekeeper-nanny, describing the aftermath of a tumble she took down a flight of stairs in Spirer’s Southampton home on the afternoon of December 29, 1999. Following an emergency-room trip that day, Dumpangol has continued to seek medical care and emotional counseling and has racked up thousands of dollars in treatment bills; she was unable to work for at least six months. Spirer, who in addition to her psychology practice owns a Southampton restaurant, is responsible for the costs but has not paid, claims Dumpangol’s lawyer, Chaumtoli Huq of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

But Spirer’s attorney, Rachel Schwartz, says her client “denies all allegations.”

Even apart from the accident, Dumpangol says, working for Spirer as a live-in housekeeper was a hardship. She describes a home overrun with unruly children, a menagerie of pets, including a large snake collection, and an employer who demanded too much. She had wanted to quit previous to her fall but says she was daunted by warnings from her employment agency that her undocumented status and age would make other jobs hard to come by.

On the day of the accident, Dumpangol recalls, she had been washing the Spirer family’s laundry in the basement when she realized the door to the kitchen, the only exit, had become locked from the other side. Pounding on the door for two to three hours got no response.

“I could not stand it. I was so tired of waiting. I was really upset,” she says.

Eventually, she saw through a window along a landing of the basement stairs that Spirer’s two young children were playing in the yard with their baby-sitter. Eager to get the nanny’s attention, Dumpangol hoisted herself on a narrow ledge in order to wave out the window.

The baby-sitter noticed her, entered the house, and unlocked the door. As the door opened, Dumpangol stepped down from the ledge. She lost her footing, tumbled down a flight of stairs, and hit concrete, landing on her side. After that, she says, “It was very hazy.” But she remembers, “I was really frightened, because I thought, ‘I’m paralyzed forever.’ I couldn’t move my leg.”

She emerged from a one-day emergency room visit on crutches, she says. Although Spirer discouraged her from leaving Southampton in her condition for her home in Queens, Dumpangol recalls, she was put back to work cleaning and looking after the children after one day of rest.

Once she finally returned to Queens in early January, Dumpangol sought further medical attention from a doctor at the Elmhurst Hospital Center. She credits that doctor with pointing out that she may have been working under exploitative conditions and encouraging her to speak with a social worker. Through the social worker, she contacted Huq, who also put her in touch with the grassroots group Women Workers Project of CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, which is coordinating the December 12 protest.

In an October 5 letter, Huq demands that Spirer compensate Dumpangol for treatment costs and income lost during the months she could not work. While Schwartz, Spirer’s attorney, does not contest that Dumpangol fell, she says, “There’s a difference between falling and being injured.” Spirer, Schwartz says, “denies that [Dumpangol] was injured.”

Insisting that she has never before heard of Spirer, Miss Dixie Employment Agency owner Shirley Cohen says, “A lot of people fall, and I’m not responsible.”

Yet Huq describes at least a preliminary settlement negotiation, saying her letter was met by a call from Schwartz requesting a figure. A number was given, and Dumpangol is still waiting for a counteroffer, Huq says. Schwartz concedes that “this was being negotiated,” but adds, “It is inappropriate for it to be negotiated in the press.”

Spirer, Women Workers Project organizers point out, is a woman of considerable means. Indeed, she has been written about in such publications as The New York Times for her work as a media buyer, psychologist, restaurant owner, and amateur investor. Her portfolio, according to a July 24, 2000, Business Week article, amounted to $4 million. “We are not going to confirm or deny any details at this point,” Schwartz says.

But Dumpangol is “not trying to cash in,” Huq stresses, despite a “general attitude” that workers with such grievances are doing just that. Explaining that Dumpangol still suffers from injuries to her back and legs, Huq argues, “What she’s asking is fair and reasonable, so she can restore her physical and emotional health and restore herself financially to where she was at.” Huq says they have not yet pursued a negligence suit due to a lack of legal manpower.

Also to blame, according to Women Workers Project activists, is the agency that placed Dumpangol. Project coordinator and nanny Carolyn deLeon argues, “She was exploited because she’s older and undocumented,” adding that such exploitation is not uncommon among domestic work agencies. Manhattan’s Miss Dixie Employment Agency, Dumpangol says, sent her to Southampton without so much as a preliminary interview with the employer, promising that the job would only last “two or three days.” She was pressured into staying longer by intimations that it would be difficult to find her other work, she claims.

Miss Dixie owner Shirley Cohen wonders, “How should I know” about the housekeeper’s troubles, explaining that the staffer who Dumpangol says placed her apparently was not trustworthy and no longer works at the agency. Insisting that she has never before heard of Spirer, Cohen adds, “A lot of people fall, and I’m not responsible.”

For domestic workers, taking on an employer can be like fighting Goliath, not only because of fewer resources but also because of their exclusion from federal and state labor laws. Along with farm workers, domestic workers are denied protection under the National Labor Relations Act and related state regulations and are not permitted to bargain collectively. Women Workers Project is working with other grassroots groups to establish a set of industry standards, which they hope to convince government agencies to recognize. Their requirements include fair wages and hours, health insurance, and adequate notice of dismissal, and would apply regardless of immigration status.

“These workers absolutely contribute to the economy. Without their labor, the city and the world would not function. They deserve protection, respect, and recognition for their labor,” says deLeon.

But reform won’t come without a unified workforce to demand it, domestic workers argue. One housekeeper, who recently won a settlement from an employer she says overworked and underpaid her, says, “In the beginning, I was so nervous. Now, I feel stronger. We won!” Now a core member of Women Workers Project, she says, “The more we support each other, the sooner we will solve the abuse of workers.”

In fact, Dumpangol says the fall has changed her life in more ways than one. She continues to deal with the physical and emotional fallout from her injuries. But before the incident, she says, “I was not a fighter.” Now, “the group will support me, and I will have the energy and confidence to fight back.” Not that she feels she has a choice. “I cannot have my conscience pricking me all the time, that if I don’t do this, the same thing could happen to another worker.”