Security on the Domestic Front


It’s easy for employers to get away with mistreating domestic workers—the problem is rooted in basic labor laws. Whether she’s from Port-au-Prince or Queens, a live-in nanny or cleaning lady has few rights. That could eventually change, however, now that a “bill of rights” for domestic workers has passed a major test in Albany.

A measure hammered out with the help of Domestic Workers United and the Immigrants Rights Clinic at NYU would wipe away all the domestic-worker exclusions from state labor and human rights laws. Also included are new guidelines to insure living wages, family leave, paid holidays, and severance pay.

Two years ago, when DWU started looking for sponsors, Albany insiders told activists that they would never get anywhere if they included provisions for $14 to $16 an hour and designated paid holidays. But they didn’t back down. Identical bills were introduced by Democratic assemblyman Keith Wright of Harlem and Republican senator Nick Spano of Westchester.

On the assembly side, says the DWU’s Ai-Jen Poo, “it’s already passed out of the Labor Committee completely intact. We’re hopeful this will pass at the end of the next session.”

As things now stand, New York State labor laws specifically exclude people who work in another person’s home from the basic protections most other workers take for granted, like the eight-hour work day. It is no accident, adds Poo, that the fields dominated by African Americans were excluded when these laws were conceived.

These laws may be rooted in bigotry, but the reasons they haven’t been changed are complex, says Tony Lu, a lawyer for the Urban Justice Center. He tells the Voice that he once tried to help a worker whose employer fired her after finding out she was pregnant. She considered suing, but Lu discovered that she didn’t have much of a case because the anti-discrimination clause in New York’s Human Rights Law expressly excludes domestic workers. It is not unusual for employers to attempt to dictate their worker’s reproductive lives. A few weeks ago Poo became aware of a case in which a woman who worked as a live-in maid and a nanny for a Manhattan family was told she must have an abortion or be fired. She chose to have the baby, and now she’s out of a job she held for four years.

“The issue gets rather thorny,” says Lu, “because it’s her workplace, but for the employer, it’s their home. The state doesn’t want to burden a person with a worker they no longer want for whatever reason. It could be argued there are valid reasons for not wanting a pregnant woman working in his home. [Legislators] don’t want to get too involved in the sanctity of a person’s home. The end result is state-sanctioned discrimination.”

Activists say that although it could be two years before the legislation becomes law, hearts and minds have started changing ever since DWU’s first victory in June 2003. In spite of industry resistance, DWU—with the help of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which drummed up support from employers—pushed a bill through City Council requiring employment agencies to tell the house cleaners and nannies they work with about minimum-wage levels and other rights they have under current laws.

The City Council legislation won’t help a Dominican immigrant from the Bronx named Tati, who, like many other non-English-speaking workers, used an employment agency without checking it out. She found herself virtually trapped in a New Jersey mansion, her only food the occasional offer of leftovers and her bunk in an unheated room. She says she had to do everything from scrubbing and cleaning the house to rubbing her boss’s feet and trying to fix a broken septic tank.

To make matters worse, she had agreed to sign over her second week’s paycheck to the agency. But she never got a paycheck at all from her boss. After four weeks on the job, she fled. In the meantime, though, she had lost her apartment in the Bronx; by the end of February, she was homeless. However, after she told her story to the host of a Spanish-language radio show, the producers contacted DWU. No longer homeless, she has found an apartment to share, as well as two part-time cleaning jobs. She’s also preparing to sue her former employer in small-claims court. Recently, she was part of a busload of domestic workers who went to Albany to share their horror stories with legislators.

Tales like Tati’s are helping to stir action in Albany, says Poo, adding, “I think that if we just continue to expand our base, anything is possible.”