These women’s stories made Francois feel like she should hold on to her own job as long as she could. Most of the time she got along with her bosses, but there were moments when she felt they weren’t treating her fairly. Sometimes, she says, they stayed out until 11 p.m. and didn’t pay her overtime. She went with them to Florida for a week in 2004 and, she says, received no extra money for working fourteen-hour days. When the girl started school in the fall of 2005, her bosses cut her schedule almost in half. Although they raised her hourly rate to $14, her total pay took a huge hit.
The husband’s behavior was also beginning to bother her. He’d come home and greet his daughter but not acknowledge Francois, she says, and he had a temper—she could hear him hollering into the telephone. When he did speak to Francois, she felt like he was talking down to her. “I would always try to avoid him,” she says. “I never liked being in the same space as him.”
After she joined Domestic Workers United, her attitude toward her job started to change. Once, she purposefully left a Domestic Workers United flyer about suggested wage rates in the girl’s schoolbag for her employers to find. And when the husband spoke to her in a way that she felt was disrespectful, she started telling him so. “After a while,” she says, “I stopped biting my lips.” As she became more assertive, she recalls, the transformation was obvious enough that one day he asked: “Who’s coaching you?”
She thought about quitting, but two things stopped her: fear of not having a job and her devotion to the girl. “She needed me as much as I needed that job.”
These days, every time an investment banker or corporate lawyer or TV producer loses his or her job, a domestic worker stands a good chance of losing her job, too. Inside the office of Domestic Workers United, the phones are busiest on Friday afternoons; that’s when nannies are most likely to get laid off, told not to come back on Monday. The recession has proved to be the ultimate recruiting tool. So many nannies have been sacked without warning that they are primed to fight back. And for those who can’t find work, there are more hours to devote to the cause.
In recent months, this army of unemployed nannies has included Barbara Young, 62, who is known in the group as “The Mayor” because of her gift for public speaking. After seventeen years as a nanny, she knows well the cruel reality of the job: No matter how gifted or experienced or devoted a nanny is, her charges will grow up and go to school, and suddenly she won’t be needed anymore. The current version of the Bill of Rights requires employers to give two weeks’ notice, but it is hard to imagine any legislative remedy that would ensure a smooth ending to such an emotional relationship.
For the past eight years, Young worked as a nanny for a young girl on the Upper West Side. In January, she says, her employers told her they were having financial problems and wanted to reduce her schedule from five days a week to three. Young balked. She knew it wouldn’t be easy to find another part-time job to supplement her income. For two weeks, she and her employers went back and forth on the matter. Eventually, she says, she agreed to work the reduced schedule until she found something else.
Before that new schedule started, however, she learned from another nanny in the neighborhood that she’d been replaced. When she reached her boss on the phone, she heard the four words every nanny dreads: We made other arrangements. “I said, ‘So wait a minute: You made other arrangements? Are you firing me over the phone?’ ”
Young’s former employer says that by the time she agreed to continue working for them, they had already hired someone else. “We tried to keep it going as long as we could,” he says. “I wish there wasn’t this feeling of unpleasantness, but I think it happens. Have you ever lost your job? There’s never a happy way of it happening.”
People lose their jobs all the time, of course. But from Young’s point of view, the worst part was not getting to say a proper good-bye to the girl she had cared for. Even with five children and thirteen grandkids of her own, she still spends a great deal of time thinking about this girl on the Upper West Side. “I had her from the time she was 6 weeks old,” she says, lifting a tissue to her bloodshot eyes. “So we were very, very close.”