Domestic Workers

Left to right: City Council members Hiram Monserrate and Gale Brewer; Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence coordinator Carolyn de Leon and Andalon founder Nahar Alam. Photo taken March 24, 2002 at City Hall, copyright Lia Chang Archive.

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–A proposal that reflects burgeoning movements around the country to protect domestic workers would extend key employee rights to New York City’s estimated 600,000 nannies, housekeepers and domestic cooks, who often work for as little as $2 an hour.

The legislation, introduced recently by several City Council members, is designed to improve employment conditions by offering domestic workers protections including the federal $5.15 hourly minimum-wage standard, overtime pay, Social Security, disability insurance and a 40-hour work week.

The law would bring the city’s domestic workers–many of whom are undocumented women laborers–protections available to most other U.S. employees.

The New York City law would require employment agencies, which place at least half of all domestic workers in New York City, to obtain a signature from each employer on a “code of conduct” describing the employer’s obligations. The agencies would be required to provide a written statement describing terms of employment to each domestic worker, including the employer’s agreement to provide minimum wage, overtime pay, Social Security, unemployment insurance, disability insurance, and worker’s compensation. The city’s Department of Consumer Affairs would oversee the agencies and have the power to inspect the agencies’ records.

Essential federal and state labor laws that cover U.S. citizens, legal residents and illegal immigrant workers often specifically exclude domestic workers from their provisions and the few that do protect workers in private homes are poorly enforced.

For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Act protections do not extend to live-in employees. The federal labor law known as Title VII and New York State Human Rights Law–both of which protect individuals from employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin–do not apply to domestic workers. Title VII applies to employers with a staff of at least 15, while the New York state law applies to employers with staffs of four or more.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, perhaps the single most important piece of legislation for workers in the United States, establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, child-labor protections, and the standard of a 40-hour workweek–but excludes live-in workers from overtime pay. Although all domestic workers have the right to be paid the minimum wage, enforcement depends entirely on the workers.

“Employers assume the worker will be less informed about the laws of this country and that she would be too afraid to approach authorities because of being undocumented,” said Naomi Zauderer, the organizing and campaign liaison with the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for low-wage workers and the unemployed. In addition, she said that many employers–like their employees–do not know that labor laws apply to all workers, regardless of immigration status.

City Councilman Hiram Monserrate, a Democrat from Queens, a home for many immigrants, says he is “going to lobby our colleagues to ensure this bill passes, then fight on state and federal levels.” City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, a Manhattan Democrat from an affluent, yet liberal, district, said she is optimistic that the bill will pass, particularly because “we’re in a budget crunch and this bill doesn’t cost anything.”

Novel Places Issue of Nannies’ Working Conditions in Spotlight

The legislation follows the debut of “The Nanny Diaries,” a novel by two former nannies, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, that’s been on the best-seller lists since it hit the stores March 7. While the tongue-in-cheek novel exquisitely satirizes vapid employers and vividly portrays a fictional selfish and self-indulgent set of parents, it does little to convey the working conditions of most nannies. Nevertheless, it has brought enormous public attention to the lives of live-in employees.

In an industry where workers are primarily immigrant women from the Caribbean, the Philippines and Eastern Europe, wages range from $175 to $650 per week, according to Jacqueline Maxwell, a nanny and organizer with Domestic Workers United. The workers have myriad responsibilities: shuttling entire families to work and school, housekeeping and laundry, cooking, child care and food shopping.

Workdays often last 16 to 17 hours, with no days off, no overtime pay, no sick days, and no health benefits. Some employers don’t provide their nannies with a salary at all–just a place to stay in exchange for live-in labor.

One example that advocates say illustrates the vulnerability of these employees is detailed in a recent civil complaint filed in New York.

Yasmin, a 61-year old immigrant from Malaysia who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that her actual name was not used, says she worked in 1999 as a live-in nanny and housekeeper for a physician’s family in well-to-do Southampton, N.Y. She had been hired through an employment agency for $500 a week, even though she was an undocumented worker.

According to Yasmin’s account, her employer initially said her job was only to provide housekeeping, but Yasmin was routinely left alone with the doctor’s two children. Her list of chores kept her busy from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and included everything from yard work and preparing the children’s lunches to giving medicine to the doctor’s pets. When the doctor hired a babysitter a few weeks later, Yasmin’s salary was cut to $400 a week.

According to a complaint filed in New York State Supreme Court on April 10, the doctor verbally abused her as well, saying, “You are lucky to have me to work for because no one else would hire you,” and, “No one knows you are here so you better be careful.”

Yasmin fell on the job due to a hazard her employer knew about but failed to cure, according to court documents. Her employer gave her no time off to recover and has refused to pay the medical bills related to the accident. Yasmin is now unemployed.

Employers Have Little Accountability

Whether Yasmin’s experience is rare or common, the fact is that “employers are free to do the hiring and firing without being held accountable,” said Carolyn H. de Leon, a former nanny and now a coordinator at the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, a group that organizes Asian communities.

While domestic workers have unionized for safe working conditions in France, Greece, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia, such live-in domestic workers are barred from unionizing in the United States. Even for live-out employees, who are technically covered by the law, collective bargaining cannot exist because there is typically only one employee per work site.

Several community-based groups have begun to organize for domestic workers’ rights, including CASA of Maryland, an advocacy organization that assists Latinos in the greater Washington area; the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles; and the Domestic Worker Cooperative in California. A live-in worker participating in these organizations could be legally fired by her employers, however, as she would not be protected by the National Labor Relations Act.

Some Argue for Different Strategy

What may ultimately improve working conditions the most for nannies and housekeepers is not the proposed legislation, but a standard contract between workers and their employers, argue some advocates. Domestic worker organizations in New York are distributing a so-called “standard contract,” educating workers about their rights and training them to negotiate with potential employers.

Zauderer, the liaison for the National Employment Law Project, said that ultimately domestic workers cannot depend on employment agencies to watch out for them and that they will still need to take the initiative to negotiate a contract that spells out their working conditions and employer’s responsibilities to them.

Michelle Tsai is a freelance reporter in New York.

For more information:

National Employment Law Project:

The Village Voice
Women Raise the City:

Outta’ Sight: Hidden Labor in Los Angeles: