Patricia always wanted to have a baby, but her doctors told her she never would. Instead, she worked as a nanny, caring for someone else’s child. She worked long hours, under the table — from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., sometimes more. She was paid what sounded to a recent immigrant like a decent salary of $500 a week. That works out to about $9 an hour, which doesn’t go very far in New York City.
Patricia (who did not want to use her real name for fear of retribution from her former employer) lived in East New York, one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in Brooklyn, an hour and 15 minutes from the Upper East Side home where she worked. But despite the long commute and the lack of overtime pay, she was happy in the job — she loved the child, and of the parents, “we had a very good relationship,” she said. “They were nice to me.”
Then Patricia found out that she was pregnant. “It just happened,” she said. She was so excited that she called her employer from the hospital after the sonogram. The next day, she was fired. No notice, no severance pay.
Early next week, New York Governor David Paterson will sign the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, the country’s first legislation protecting the rights of nannies, housekeepers and those who care for the elderly. In a time when the vast majority of mothers also have full time jobs, this force of 200,000 (in New York City alone) does the intensely personal work of warming bottles full of pumped breast milk, washing dishes from last night’s dinner, and bandaging scraped knees from falls at the playground. But, because they work in private homes, they are largely invisible as a workforce, unable to organize and, until now, without recourse when employers mistreat or take advantage of them. Ninety-five percent of domestic workers are foreign born, and almost all are women. Many are undocumented, and most work off the books.
“This work has been largely devalued because it’s considered to be women’s work, and particularly brown women’s work,” said Priscilla Gonzalez, director of Domestic Workers United, an organization that advocated for the new legislation. “Conditions are ripe for abuse and exploitation.”
Had this new legislation been in place at the time, Patricia would have been protected under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, an amendment to the Civil Rights Act that prohibits employers from discriminating against workers based on pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. The law only applies to companies that employ 15 people or more, but under the new legislation, domestic workers will be covered as well. In addition to basic human and civil rights protections, domestic workers in New York will now be entitled to three days of paid rest and overtime pay of one-and-a-half times their normal wage for work beyond the standard 40-hour work week.
It would be hard to argue that the women who care for our parents and children (mostly children) don’t deserve all that and more. But whether their employers can afford the new requirements is another question — one that raises a flurry of unresolved issues about race, class, gender, immigration and the modern middle-class dual-income family.
I met Heidi at a coffeeshop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a traditionally working-class neighborhood that has begun to be infiltrated by the fancy stroller set. She was an hour and 15 minutes late. “We live in a fourth floor walk-up, and we don’t have a washer/dryer,” she explained. “The laundromat closes at 8, so by the time I get home from work, it’s usually closed. I woke up this morning and didn’t have any clothes for the kids to wear, and Emmet has a fever so we were up all night, and then I had to go to the laundry at 8 a.m…”
Heidi (who asked that her last name not be used) was working as a web producer when she had her first son. After spending six weeks at home unpaid with the newborn, she began looking into infant daycare, but found few viable options. Most daycare centers don’t accept children under 6 months of age; those that do are nearly as expensive as hiring a nanny. In her neighborhood, Heidi said, she couldn’t find a center that charged less than $2,000 a month.
She hired a wonderful Tibetan nanny, who, she said, played a big part in her children’s lives. But she paid the nanny more money than she was bringing home. “My husband doesn’t have health insurance because he’s an independent contractor,” she said. Heidi went back to work both for the health insurance and out of fear that if she took too much time off, it would be difficult to re-enter the workforce.
Heidi paid her nanny $550 per week, and though they had no formal arrangement, she paid her for sick days and for days when the family went on vacation. But she didn’t pay her overtime — something that would be required under the new legislation.
“I guess because I freelanced for so long, to me, she’s paid hourly and that seems fair,” she said. “Not everyone gets paid overtime. I don’t get paid overtime. If I had to pay her overtime, I don’t know where the money would have come from. We’re pretty in debt right now.”
Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and author of several books about the modern family, said the law hasn’t kept pace with reality when it comes to childcare. For most women, working outside the home is “no longer a personal choice, but the norm,” she said. And yet, childcare is underfunded, unregulated and unevenly available — “a patchwork system that leaves parents in a tremendous bind.”
Coontz said that what the country needs is a comprehensive childcare bill, like the one passed by Congress in 1974 but vetoed by then-President Richard Nixon. She called the New York legislation “a wonderful boon” to domestic workers and their families. “But it’s a classic trade-off,” she said. “With the way childcare is structured in this country, it means many middle-class families are going to have a hard time affording it.”
Gonzalez isn’t too worried about people laying off their nannies because they can’t afford the protections in the new legislation. Studies conducted by Domestic Workers United show that 40 percent of domestic workers in New York are already receiving benefits packages like paid sick days and paid vacation, so, in a sense, the organization was seeking to standardize common practices.
“What’s the alternative?” she asked. “That abuse continues because employers want to maintain their lifestyle on the backs of someone else?”
The legislation sent for Governor Paterson’s signature doesn’t have nearly all the provisions that Gonzalez and her organization wanted — they lost the battle for more paid sick days, holidays and vacation time, and for two weeks’ notice before termination. Still, she said, “it’s an important first step, the first time in the history of this country that domestic workers are recognized.” And New York is setting a precedent for places like California and Colorado, where advocates are pushing for similar legislation.
As for Patricia, she now works for a new family while her husband takes care of their 22-month-old son. “It’s hard when you have a child to leave your own child to take care of someone else’s child,” she said. But her situation is much better than before. She now gets paid the same $500, but never works more than 40 hours a week. And she knows all about the new domestic workers legislation because her new employer printed out an article for her.