DOMESTIC WORKERS REFORM BILL PART 2

(Not authored by Nanny X)

Today, immigrants and other women of color still do a disproportionate share of paid domestic work for uncertain wages, little respect, and no security. Employers still tend to see their nannies and housekeepers as “help,” often refusing to hire on the books and insisting on paying in cash to avoid Social Security taxes. According to a 2008 survey of parents in Park Slope, Brooklyn, only 16 percent of employers filed Social Security taxes for their nannies, leaving them without Social Security, Medicare, and pensions. Housecleaners and caregivers simply remain far more at the mercy of their employers’ decency than other workers.
And decency only goes so far. One of Domestic Workers United’s members, Marina, was hired to care for a 13-year-old boy who was handicapped and wore diapers. Her boss paid her $2 an hour and told her to sleep in a basement where sewage overflowed. Marina cobbled together a cardboard walkway so she could pass between her bed and the door without trampling through feces. Her boss fired her without telling her why and made Marina leave the house the next day. As a Colombian immigrant with no family in the States, she had nowhere to go. 
With the help of Domestic Workers United and the National Employment Law Center, Marina sued her former employers, and after a four-year legal battle finally won back pay. Her story is especially bad, but all domestic workers can be fired without warning or reason. Live-in workers are often on-call day and night: According to Domestic Workers United, 45 percent of New York City’s live-in caregivers work for 60 or more hours a week. Their pay tends to be meager, usually below the minimum wage. The same survey reports that in New York City, an overwhelming majority of domestic workers are immigrants and 76 percent are not citizens. When live-in workers do have documentation, their employers may have secured the visas. Employers have been known to take passports and stop immigrant workers from leaving the house. 
Let’s assume that most people aren’t going to put anybody in a feces-covered basement or take an employee’s passport. Hey, let’s assume that most employers are honest and kind. Even then, when a housekeeper or nanny negotiates with her boss, she does it alone. She doesn’t have co-workers, the law, a union, or any sort of prestige to lean on. Negotiations between a domestic worker and employer are based on personal expectations, not codes. 
I worked as a nanny in my early 20s. Sometimes my boss and I sprawled across her apartment’s hallway, absorbed in conversation and all but ignoring her 3-year-old daughter. My boss confided that she was ambivalent about motherhood. She felt guilty every morning she left her daughter to go to work, but she felt claustrophobic and resentful when she didn’t go. I listened to win her approval, which always felt just beyond my grasp. And I put up with an ever-fluctuating schedule. My boss would call last minute to rearrange my hours, and if I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid. 
I knew I should tell her that I needed a set salary and schedule, but I felt disposable and was afraid of confrontation. Despite myself, I liked this mother and knew she was struggling. Were my grievances unreasonable? I didn’t know. I wasn’t living hand-to-mouth or sending money to my family in Guatemala. I was a citizen, white and college-educated. And even so, because my only “contract” was a vague conversation during my interview—when I was my most agreeable, of course—I found it hard to stick up for myself.
It’s no mystery why immigrant nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers have trouble demanding fair working conditions. The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights would give them legitimacy and a code to rely on. And it would give guidance to employers who want to treat their employees fairly, but aren’t always sure how. Come on, New York, let’s leave the 1930s behind.