Domestic Disturbance


They picketed a midtown bank and an East Side embassy where their bosses worked, demanding unpaid wages through bullhorns. They brandished signs on a West Village sidewalk and before a picket fence in Queens, denouncing families for abusing and shafting their household workers. They organized in playgrounds, talked reform over dinners they cooked each other, and together mapped a road to a more dignified life.

But they were supposed to stay home.

They were supposed to be too tired from working 50, 60, or 80 hours a week. Too discouraged by earnings of a few hundred dollars a week or sometimes a month. Too frightened, because many of them are not supposed to be in this country, and none can afford to lose a job. The Nanny Diaries, a comic new novel by two NYU graduates who once worked on Park Avenue, has caused a sensation with its titillating trade secrets, but these ordinary workers are still struggling to expose the grimmer truths.

Indeed, a package of measures set to be introduced in the City Council this month is proof of a growing labor movement among New York’s nannies and housekeepers. Too dispersed for a traditional union, these women have typically fended for themselves in the insulated, highly personal setting of private homes. The proposals, however, mark a peak in momentum that has been building for years, as the workers, who call themselves Domestic Workers United, have gained supporters and lobbied legislators. It will be the first time in history that the city acknowledges the special burdens of domestic workers and considers reforms to relieve them.

“This is a community whose rights, I feel very strongly, are not being protected,” says Gale Brewer, the Upper West Side councilmember who has taken the lead in pushing proposals for a local law and a resolution, which requires a vote but lacks legal power. The community she speaks of could number in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Absent an official tally, industry observers look at estimates of Caribbean, Asian, Latino, and Eastern European immigrants, who make up the vast majority of workers, and numbers of potential employers.

The proposed law applies to placement agencies, which are estimated to transact about 50 percent of the city’s domestic work for a commission of 10 to 15 percent of a worker’s annual salary paid by those hiring. According to a recent draft, it seeks to establish a “code of conduct” reflecting basic labor rights such as a minimum wage, overtime, and Social Security payment—an indication of the profession’s arrested state. Agency heads who failed to obtain employers’ signatures acknowledging the code would face license suspension or revocation, a fine, or imprisonment up to one year.

Enforceable through the Department of Consumer Affairs, the law would “impose an official standard on agencies to impose standards on employers,” says Brewer’s chief of staff, Brian Kavanagh. “This gets rid of the ignorance defense” both plead, sometimes sincerely, when accused of flouting labor laws, he says. Agencies are not legally required to monitor how workers fare after placement, nor is there a mandatory grievance process. The head of one reputable Manhattan agency says a “very good rapport” with workers is her process.

The accompanying resolution would express a more radical vision of rights for all domestics, whether employed through agencies or on their own. A draft refers to “the rights of all workers to regularize their immigration status, [and] to organize.” It calls for reforms to federal and state labor laws that currently exclude household workers and advances a set of “standard guidelines, “not only for wages and hours but also for benefits like vacation and sick days.

“If you’ve got councilmembers across the city agreeing that this is the standard, that should help to bring this issue to the attention of state and federal legislators, and . . . provide the basis to bring other people into the movement,” says Kavanagh. Mistreated domestics, he says, could consider their local legislator to be an official advocate where none had existed before.

The actual penalties involved are fairly mild, leading council proponents to hope for a smooth passage. The measures would require little or no additional funding and demand no more than employment norms widely accepted in other industries. But the desired effect, say supporters, is no less than a sea change in the public’s understanding of domestic workers’ rights.

These workers include housekeepers, cooks, nannies, and the many who serve in between, yet the fair-pay question often raises the issue of child care affordability. Certainly the pending proposals will not resolve those daunting economics. The minimum legal cost of employing a household worker in New York City for 50 hours a week is about $14,000 a year plus taxes. Day care, while more affordable, is scarce and lacks the convenience of in-home care.

Many employers strive to pay more than the minimum, recognizing the near impossibility of surviving on such a sum. Jill and Bob Strickman-Ripps, who live and work out of two loft apartments in Tribeca, can do so more generously than others. She owns a casting company; he is a commercial photographer. They hired Eunice Easly at $350 a week in 1997, steadily raised her to $540—about $28,000 annually—and plan an increase for the additional care of their newborn son. The parents “are very fair,” says Easly. They provide her with health insurance and paid her through the six weeks she needed to recover from a recent operation. “How else was she going to pay her rent?” says Jill Strickman-Ripps. “What’s most important to us is that the person who cares for our children feel good about us.”

Yet in Eddie and Randi Rosenstein’s case, good intentions only stretch so far. With two young children, they had to move from Brooklyn’s fashionable Boerum Hill to a first-floor rental in Ditmas Park. He is an independent filmmaker, she a pediatric physical therapist. Their income precluded even the cost of a nanny agency.

Through word of mouth, they hired a Caribbean woman who, Eddie Rosenstein says, “had this huge fear that we were these wealthy employers who were taking advantage of her.” The nanny declined to be interviewed. Rosenstein gives an estimate of her salary, over $20,000 a year plus taxes. “This is all we can afford, period,” he says. Their child care expense, including part-time day care for their older son, “is awesome,” he says. “It’s more than we used to make collectively.” However, says Rosenstein, who is filming a documentary about low-wage workers, “As much as we’re doing for her, I can imagine how hard it is to get by on what we’re able to give her.” He says the parents who pay less and expect more breed resentment that projects onto concerned employers like him.

Carolyn H. de Leon, an organizer who started her 10-year nannying career at $2 an hour, says she can sympathize with parents’ financial crunch. “Many of us have children, too. We have even fewer options for child care.” Yet in the families they work for, she says, “there is saving going on for college tuitions, for summer trips. Many of us cannot save one penny, even working all the time.” She commends the parents who pay a living wage, but says, “we can’t just count on getting good employers, because there are plenty of bad and ignorant ones.”

Indeed, the proposed council measures challenge some long-standing industry conditions—low wages and long hours, worker isolation, and lack of official concern—that keep employers in control. Despite fair and generous agreements, these circumstances nevertheless allow for thousands of working women to be overworked, underpaid, and sometimes abused. There is a moral imperative that, reformers hope, will deflate any opposition.

In fact, moral authority was all that a half-dozen members of Domestic Workers United brought to their first meeting with Brewer, on February 12. They could deliver few votes or donors. Most had never met an elected official.

Nahar Alam, an activist with six years in domestic work, gestures toward a friend seated next to her. She explains on behalf of the Bengali speaker, “She lost one job because she was sick. She was sick because she was working 18 hours per day. [Employers] are taking so much advantage. They hire, they fire. You cannot do anything. We get two, three dollars an hour. Immigrants in particular. Even if you have a green card, it doesn’t matter.”

Jacqueline Maxwell, an African American, adds that she has had similar problems. Moreover, paid vacations, sick leave, and health care are rare. Says Faye Roberts, who raised three daughters while working here, pregnancy or missing work to attend to one’s own children can warrant a dismissal.

Verbal and physical abuse are more common than workers like to admit, say the women, and job security is a joke. Plenty earn less than the legal minimum, especially considering uncompensated overtime. And because no one is telling the employers to stop, the abuses go on.

The heartfelt pile-on gets to Brewer fairly quick. “You need backup,” she says. “We will definitely move on this.”

The women have won over a growing list of councilmembers, including Christine Quinn, John Liu, and Charles Barron, simply by recounting their own experiences. Bill Perkins, the council’s deputy majority leader, says, “I’m on board by legacy.” His grandmother, an African American, was a household worker.

“These people have historically been exploited, treated like peons,” he says. Set to introduce his own bill proposing a living wage for certain service workers, he says of the pending domestic work package, “It helps to define us as an institution in a progressive way, in a way that’s responsive not just to landlords or business interests or wealth, but also to those who are exploited, and whose exploitation is silent.”

The officials did not even meet Estella Ngambi, who left her young son in Zambia and came to New York to support him. She keeps house for a tennis instructor for $350 a month, an amount she says she hasn’t seen since December. She says she sleeps in his kitchen on a blanket, instead of on an air mattress reserved for guests. She has no friends to take her in, and no funds with which to escape.

Worse cases have appeared in recent years under headlines screaming “Modern-Day Slavery” and “Beatings and Isolation.” Many of these involved third-world migrants brought into the U.S. on special visas by diplomats and financiers. These are extreme examples of how lack of legal status, especially combined with the restrictions of being a live-in worker, can leave domestics at serious risk.

Says Carol Pier, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has reported on special-visa domestics, “Migrant domestic workers with or without visas are often isolated, devalued by their employers, and invisible to government scrutiny.” In immigration hubs like New York, they are believed to constitute a possible majority of the workforce.

Fear of deportation, language barriers, and ignorance of U.S. laws keep undocumented workers earning less and working longer hours, often at more physically demanding jobs. The government offers them little relief, banning them even from collecting food stamps, although they are covered under minimum wage and overtime rules.

As a result, they can end up earning “pennies,” says Maurice Wingate, president of Best Domestic, one of Manhattan’s largest agencies, which does not place the undocumented. “I’ve heard of situations where they just work for room and board. They end up taking what they can get. They are subject to harsher violence and unfair treatment.”

Says Carla Vincent, a nanny who works here to support an eight-year-old daughter in Trinidad, “parents really take advantage” of women like her. Her first job in New York paid $225 per week in 1998 for live-in child care, housekeeping, and cooking. “I would have to wait until they were finished eating and then eat. Then she wanted me to meet her in the Hamptons, and I would be responsible for my own traveling expenses.”

There are many women in her situation, she says, “every second nanny that you meet. We give up a lot, and it’s only because you can better support your children from here than if you were home. There are no jobs down there.”

Even for those without immigration worries, the fluid boundaries of domestic work can allow for exploitation. Job titles and stated duties are often mere formalities. “Quite frankly, some parents will place a job order saying they want a nanny, and they’ll kind of leave out the housekeeping aspect. They start with making the beds, then it goes to sweeping the floors, then to mopping, then before you know it, you’ve got a person doing nannying and housekeeping,” says Wingate.

He says the best-paid domestics can earn upwards of $800 a week. But the U.S. Department of Labor, without data on undocumented workers, puts the median weekly wage for family child care workers at $265, for a 35-hour week. In New York, that sum would fall below the $5.15 hourly minimum, if a more typical 50-hour week and overtime rules were factored in.

Even the worker who enjoys above-minimal conditions should not rest easy, says Ann Campbell, a nanny from Grenada with a job situation she calls “very rare.” She nets $500 after taxes for an approximately 40-hour week, strictly for live-out child care. Finding a decent job, she says, “is based on luck, finding the right person to work for. It’s not based on how well you do your job. Even though I’m in a good situation now, you never know.”

The law does not necessarily guarantee a decent job. Domestics are excluded from many basic labor rights, including the right not to be fired for collective organizing. Laws prohibiting discrimination based on race and sex usually apply only to workplaces with multiple employees. While their history is complex, these exclusions are essentially based in traditional notions of women’s work and servitude.

State and federal labor agencies do not actively monitor household workers’ conditions, although all are entitled to their help in recovering minimum wage and overtime pay. However, spokesman Robert Lillpopp says the state Department of Labor has no record of how many domestics have actually sought such aid. A U.S. labor official, speaking on background, says the department’s New York City office receives six to 12 domestic worker wage and hour complaints a year, most from third-party advocates.

“We do not get as many complaints as we think we should,” says the official. And when inspectors follow up, he says, they find that “these are employers who are very difficult to deal with. Trying to get it done without jeopardizing the individual’s work environment—making sure the employer doesn’t take any kind of retaliatory action—makes it difficult.”

In New York City, the Department of Consumer Affairs monitors the businesses that place an estimated 50 percent of domestics. But spokesman John Radziejewski says labor conditions are the Department of Labor’s responsibility. If DOL were to notify DCA of problems, he says, “we would take them under consideration.” Lawyers supporting the domestic workers group say, however, that DCA cannot absolve itself of worker responsibility. The group hopes the pending reforms and a newly vigilant City Council will spur more rigorous oversight.

Domestics can file private lawsuits. But according to Ranjana Natarajan, who handles such suits as a staff attorney at NYU’s Immigrant Rights Law Clinic, no more than a dozen such complaints were brought in the city over the past several years. Lawsuits require that workers know their rights to begin with, she says, and they can be intimidating, costly, and drawn out.

“So many employers count on the fact that it’s such a privatized industry,” says Natarajan. Collective action, she says, is key. “The biggest factor is that workers feel secure and have some sense of support.”

Among the few dozen women gathered over potluck one late December night in Brooklyn, support is all any of them can afford to give generously. Here, in a Fort Greene space donated by a community organization, Domestic Workers United hosts parties, nanny trainings, and reform planning sessions that have drawn several hundred over the past few years.

Tonight, the women are especially fired up. Someone brought a plastic pitcher of sex-on-the-beach. And Campbell, the nanny from Grenada, shares a harrowing tale. Her 5-foot-10 frame sways dramatically as she describes escaping from within blocks of the collapsing World Trade Center with two toddlers and a stroller in tow. Her audience gasps appropriately. “We have a real hero here tonight,” says one woman. Adds another, “See, her main concern was the kids. You can’t put a price on that.”

For talk tonight is of the low price most of them do get, especially now that times are tighter. “To fire you, everybody’s blaming the World Trade Center,” says a woman who was recently laid off. “Jobs are harder to come by,” another chimes in. “If you can find work, it might be for fewer hours.”

One woman was fired when her employers found out she was pregnant. It’s a familiar story, one that prompts sympathy and promises of a baby shower.

Another worker was fired, even after working on Thanksgiving to serve a dinner for 17. When she objected to working that day, she says her boss told her, “You are Jamaican, and it is not your holiday.” The group erupts. “We’re in America, why isn’t this holiday being respected?” demands one woman. “Then give us all the Jamaican holidays off!”

As in many conversations among these nannies and housekeepers, reform becomes the central topic. The women’s stories make clear how isolation and lack of regulation leave individuals with little recourse. The group wants a standard for the fair employment of domestic workers, one recognized by both employers and officials, so that it can function almost as an industry-wide contract. And in a several-years-long campaign, they have attracted the numbers, advocates, and official support they hope will help them achieve it.

“There are probably not tons of domestic workers who can afford to live on the Upper West Side,” says Councilmember Brewer of her district. “I don’t care. I’m very committed.” She frames the measures she is about to propose in the broader context of women’s and labor rights and plans to form a coalition to reflect that scope. In fact, the workers already have the support of the AFL-CIO’s Central Labor Council and influential locals of the hotel and restaurant workers’ and service employees’ unions. A slew of women’s and minority groups are also on board, as are prominent figures like Gloria Steinem.

A few of the workers were fired when their bosses learned of the rights campaign. But several showed their employers Domestic Workers United’s suggested standards and received support and, in a couple of cases, a raise. Parent Eddie Rosenstein welcomes the idea of universal standards, saying, “I want things to be clear, so they don’t mistrust me, and I don’t get scared I’ll get gouged.” Moreover, he says, “As a decent employer, I’m getting the residual effect of bad employers, who’ve abused overtime, who’ve cheaped out.”

Indeed, council proponents point out that the standards they are hoping to legislate essentially reinforce bare minimums. Opposition, they say, would be difficult to defend.

Even if they pass, the measures will still hardly revolutionize household employment. But the stamp of official support is a great deal more than the workers have had to this point. “I’m thrilled to be getting the City Council’s backing,” says organizer de Leon. “To me, it’s a weapon already” in the battle to define domestics as workers with rights.

Special research: Sophia Chang; research: Joshua LeSieur

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