Every morning, the exodus of nannies begins before dawn. They greet one another at the subway stop in Crown Heights or East Flatbush or Sunset Park, then board the train to Manhattan, fanning out across the borough to spend the next eight or ten or fourteen hours taking care of someone else’s children. Patricia Francois would ride the Q train from Flatbush to her workplace, a luxury apartment across from Carnegie Hall.
Her employers were a documentary filmmaker (the husband) and a prominent sports agent (the wife). A friend of a friend—a baby nurse—had told her about the job. When she first met the parents, in 2002, she was filled with the usual job-interview jitters. Then she saw their 18-month-old daughter. “If you saw the smile I got from that baby,” she says. “I fell in love with her, and she fell in love with Pat.”
The starting pay wasn’t great—$500 a week for 50 hours of work—but Francois couldn’t be too picky; she hadn’t worked in three months. And this was much better than the first job she got after arriving from Trinidad six years earlier; she’d worked as a live-in nanny in Westchester, making just $300 a week. The baby nurse had warned her that the husband was not easy to get along with, but Francois knew she’d be spending her days with the girl, not him. Some of the other nannies in the park might have had a better deal in terms of hours and pay, but in other ways she was convinced she had the better job. “I had a wonderful kid,” she says.
Francois and the girl went everywhere together: to the playground, library, music class, play dates, the zoo. One day, not long after she started, they were in Central Park when she noticed a newsletter lying on a bench. It was from an organization she’d never heard of: Domestic Workers United. The headline—RESPECT ALL WORK—reminded her of something her father used to tell her back in Trinidad: “Pat, respect yourself and others will respect you.” The newsletter mentioned an upcoming meeting at a church in Fort Greene. Francois tucked the stapled pages into her pocketbook. At the time, she never could have predicted that this single act would lead to her own political awakening—and that ultimately her entire life as a nanny would unravel.
There may be no more peculiar employer-employee relationship than the one that exists between parents and nannies. A nanny’s workplace is the boss’s home, her salary negotiations taking place at the kitchen table. Whether she likes it or not, she has a ringside seat to her employers’ marital scuffles, housekeeping habits, financial ups and downs. And when there are problems, there’s no HR department to consult, not even a co-worker to vent with. For parents, the arrangement is fraught with guilt and anxiety over leaving their children with another caregiver; sometimes there is competition and jealousy between parents and nannies over a child’s affections. To complicate matters further, some parents don’t like to think of themselves as bosses at all, preferring to think of the nanny as a “member of the family.” The unsurprising outcome of all of this is an industry with few standards. Inside a single apartment building, the work lives of nannies can vary wildly, from how much they’re paid to what their duties are to whether their boss talks to them like a professional or a servant.
It used to be that the only place an unhappy nanny could find solace was the park bench, but ten years ago Domestic Workers United set out to change that. One of the group’s founders was Ai-jen Poo, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, who went to work for an Asian-American organization in the Bronx after graduating from Columbia in 1996. Before long, she met several Filipina nannies who had come to New York via Hong Kong—only to find that in some ways they were worse off here. In Hong Kong, domestic workers labor under standard two-year contracts, which require employers to pay a minimum salary, provide days off, and cover their medical care. In New York, some of these women were being paid less than minimum wage—one was making $700 a month. “Coming to the United States, where they expected freedom and democracy and everybody’s rights being protected, they were really shocked to find domestic workers in New York had no standards and protections,” says Poo.
She began meeting with the Filipina women to talk about how to improve their work conditions, then expanded her efforts to target Caribbean women, too, since they make up a large percentage of the city’s nannies. She and a few other organizers handed out flyers at Manhattan’s busiest playgrounds, then held a meeting in a bookstore in Fort Greene in the fall of 1999. Ten women showed up, including Beverly Alleyne, a native of Barbados, who had been working as a nanny in New York since 1977. “I was very impressed and overwhelmed,” Alleyne recalls. “We had been in this country all this time and never had anyone told us about organizing.”