Fear was one of the biggest obstacles in recruiting new members. “When I first tried to explain to the ladies in the park about coming to the meetings, they would always say, ‘I can’t come because I don’t want my employer to know,’ ” says Alleyne. “I told them: ‘What you do on weekends is your business.’ ” Among those employers who did find out, reactions varied enormously: A mother in Westchester overheard her nanny on the phone talking about the group and told her, “If you don’t have anything better to do with your time, you can come up here and work.” Meanwhile, on the Upper West Side, an employer took a pile of flyers and started distributing them to nannies herself.
Over the past ten years, the group has recruited some 3,000 women. Most are nannies, the rest are housekeepers and elder-caregivers, and almost everyone is an immigrant. The organization runs a nanny-training course (with lessons on how to negotiate with your boss), and so far it’s helped more than a dozen women sue their employers—for physical assault, sub-minimum-wage pay, failure to pay overtime. Taking cases to court, however, is not their preferred strategy. What they most want is for New York State to adopt its “Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.”
Throughout history, politicians have excluded domestic workers from federal and state labor laws. President Roosevelt’s federal minimum-wage proposal in 1937 sparked ads in magazines: “Housewives beware! If the Wages and Hours Bill goes through, you will have to pay your Negro girl eleven dollars a week.” To win the support of Southern Democrats in Congress, Roosevelt announced that the bill wouldn’t apply to “domestic help.”
The recession has been the ultimate recruiting tool. nannies who’ve been sacked without warning are primed to fight back.
Domestic workers have since come under the protection of minimum-wage laws, but there are still a number of standard benefits they are not guaranteed: sick days, holidays, paid vacation, severance. Last week, the State Senate passed a bill that would provide for one day off a week, six paid holidays, seven sick days, five vacation days, and notice of termination. It would also strengthen the rules about overtime pay. (Although nannies are supposed to be subject to overtime laws, not all employers pay time and a half for extra hours worked.) If this bill can be reconciled with one that passed the Assembly last year—and Governor Paterson signs it—New York will become the first state to enact a bill of rights for domestic workers.
The new law would cover all 200,000 domestic workers in the New York area—whether they work on the books or off, whether they are legal residents or not—giving them recourse if their employer disregards the rules. Supporters believe it has the potential to alter dramatically the nanny-employer relationship. The tenor of job negotiations changes when a nanny is not just asking for paid vacation time but pointing out that she is legally entitled to it. No doubt there will be a period of adjustment and some employers who resist. But considering the number of parents who post questions about how to treat their nannies on sites like Urban Baby—How much of a raise should I give my nanny? How should I let go of my nanny of five years?—it’s evident that many employers are trying to get this relationship right. While the Bill of Rights doesn’t stipulate wages, it will provide something that many parents seem to want: clarity.
Donna Schneiderman first heard about the Bill of Rights in 2008, after an organizer from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice visited her daughter’s Hebrew school in Park Slope. She supports the bill, “so that as employers we’re not winging it.” Schneiderman has employed the same woman to care for her children for eleven years. “Yes, there will be an awkward transition for those of us who have been long-term employers, and there might be a financial impact for some people who may not have been paying vacation pay or who may not be paying for sick days,” she says. “But I think the next wave of new parents will be better off for it. That will be their new standard.”
By the time Francois arrived at her first Domestic Workers United meeting in Fort Greene, the women had split into groups: Latina women speaking Spanish to one another, Caribbean women talking in English, West African women speaking French. She joined the English speakers and listened. Francois had come to New York alone and had no family here, but suddenly she felt as though she was surrounded by women who could be her sisters. The camaraderie kept her coming back.
Occasionally, the group would hold protests to publicize a worker’s allegations of abuse. Francois went to rallies for Marina Lopez, a grandmother from Colombia, who filed a lawsuit accusing her boss of paying her less than $3 an hour to care for a disabled boy—and putting her sleeping quarters in a basement where raw sewage spilled onto the floor. And she showed up at a rally for Angelica Hernandez, a housekeeper-nanny from Mexico, who alleged that her bosses paid her less than minimum wage and worked her around the clock in their Tribeca apartment. After two Indonesian housekeepers were held as virtual slaves in Muttontown, Long Island—and their bosses were convicted in federal court—Francois joined a protest outside the courthouse too.