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Nannies to get new protections in New York, but is more needed?

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.

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  • stressed mother

    This is a great story! So important! It makes me think, gosh what side am I on? As a mother I want to provide the best childcare for my child, but my salary just cannot afford me to pay my nanny overtime. With this new law I don’t know what I will do.

  • terry silverman

    there are two sides to the coin. The happier the nanny is, the happier the baby will be!!we should all treat employees well, but that is not always the case. I for one, have a masters degree and I do not get a paid vacation,any days off, any overtime, or any health insurance. A generation ago, child care workers earned about $2.oo an hour. Today, they are making well above minimum wage, as they should be. But, at today’s rates, no one can afford child care unless both parents are earning a high salary.Should the government be controlling perks??? If the government regulates benefits, I want mine too!!! This could set off a huge chain reaction.

  • thomas hayes

    great article…food for thought!!!

  • Selfish Mom

    I’m all for people being treated fairly in their jobs, but this seems to go overboard. If nannies are afforded these perks, why not every hourly worker?

    I’m especially glad that the two weeks’ notice part didn’t go through. Can you imagine telling someone that they’re fired, and then letting them be in your home, taking care of your children, for two weeks?

  • Expectingnanny

    As an expecting nanny, I am lucky to have a wonderful employer. I, however, will be stuck finding a new job once my baby is born. I have been mistreated in the past by a family, and it is one of the worst experiences a person can go through. I hope this new bill is a turning point for our country, nannies need it!!

  • mansfieldpark

    “What the country needs” is not “a comprehensive child care bill”– what the country needs is for the economy to return to the place where one salary can support a middle class life, so that parents can care for their own children. Until that’s possible, if we’re going to subsidize childcare, then we can subsidize meaningful, real-life parental leave, full stop. This seems like common sense to me, but somehow we’ve all drunk the kool aid and believe we need to work within the system that exists.

  • ca

    Agreed about the two weeks. The first sign of animosity is the last time I would leave my child with anyone.

    It’s unfortunate that so many domestic workers, and not just nannies but housekeepers also, are mistreated. Growing up my family employed a Nicaraguan immigrant to clean our house. She was living with her sponsor, who treated her like a slave. She had no way out. If she crossed her sponsor her chances for citizenship would have been gone. My family helped her study and gain citizenship, co-signed a loan and helped her start her own housecleaning business. She is now very successful and has legally brought many of her family members and friends to this country.

    When my daughter was born we employed a nanny who, three years later, is still a part of our family even though she hasn’t been our nanny for a couple years. Since my parents took seriously the responsibility of teaching me how to treat other humans, I had a wonderful relationship with our nanny. We drew up a contract when we hired her that we both signed so everyone was clear on their rights and responsibilities and we made sure to be understanding about sick days and vacations. And she did the same. In fact she would often comment that subsequent families treated her like “the help.” I have never understood how anyone could mistreat the person who cares for their children. The decision to continue to work was a difficult one, as far as I was concerned the person who was caring for my child needed to be as well loved and supported as possible so she could do the best job possible. Ultimately treating nannies like humans is all part of being a good parent and a good human.

    That said, there are many families, like ours, who could not afford the quality of care we received if government regulations require us to provide healthcare, for example. The “under the table” nature of the business relationship works in much the same way that tips for restaurant workers does. We made sure we reported all our nannies wages, but there are many families for whom regulations could force their children into sub-par day cares. Even though nannies are often more expensive that is not always the case, especially when the nanny is a friend or relative. Would regulations actually cost some people jobs? 40% isn’t exactly a majority. That means that 60%, in New York City alone, still aren’t getting benefits. Will that 60% in New York City keep their jobs? What about the rest of the state? Gonzales “isn’t too worried” about that 60% and more? And what about paid family arrangements? What, exactly, would happen there?

    I think regulation is much needed and long overdue to protect the basic human rights of domestic workers. However the spectrum of circumstances that could be affected is broad and careful data collection and analysis should occur before any legislation is passed. And legislation should be fair to all parties.

  • tb

    “What’s the alternative?” she asked. “That abuse continues because employers want to maintain their lifestyle on the backs of someone else?” Are you kidding me? We support a woman generously and work our asses off to maintain a normal life. To say that we are doing this on the “back” of someone else is insane.

  • DM

    Why the spotlight here? There are millions of underpaid people in this country. Migrant laborers making less than minimum wage with inconsistent hours doing backbreaking outdoor labor with no healthcare, for example.

    The nannys here are making more than minimum wage. But here, the cheap labor is in place to benefit women who are trying to work. I guess that supporting a typical middle-class mother’s ability to work is less important than having cheap fruit.

    I think that until there is a federal program that supports working women, any crackdown on this sector is a misplaced priority.

  • argument online job news

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