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The Nanny Uprising

For Patricia Francois, the evening of December 18, 2008, started like any other: She prepared dinner in her employers’ kitchen, bathed and fed their now-8-year-old daughter. That day, the wife was out of town, she says, so when Francois heard the front door open around 6:30 p.m., she knew it was the husband. What happened next is a matter of fierce dispute—and the subject of a lawsuit now working its way through federal court. In Francois’s version of the story, the husband came home in a bad mood and began berating his daughter for not practicing her lines for a holiday skit. Even after he took her to another room, Francois could hear the girl crying.

“Mr. Matthew, stop it!” she shouted.

“It’s my child!” he said.

“I don’t care!” she said. “I’m taking care of her too!”

She was about to leave when she overheard him tell his daughter she was going to have to do without her nanny from now on. Hearing the girl’s sobs, Francois went to comfort her, and that’s when, she claims, things escalated. According to Francois, her boss called her a “stupid black bitch” and told her he hoped she died “a horrible death.” She shouted back and he slapped her, she claims. When Francois tried to call 911, he grabbed her hand and twisted it. She fell, he lost his balance, too, and then he punched her in the torso and the face. She struggled to get free and rushed out the door.

A doorman helped Francois down to the lobby, where she sat on a bench, tears streaking her face. The police came and filled out a report, describing a bruise below her left eye and a bruise and cut on her left hand. “I was inclined to arrest him that evening,” an officer later said in a deposition, “but … Ms. Francois vehemently did not want to press charges at that time.” With the mother away, she was afraid the girl would wind up in the custody of child welfare if the father was arrested.

As the nanny became more assertive, her employer asked: “Who’s coaching you?”

A lawyer who lives in the building walked into the lobby and saw Francois. “My initial reaction [was] that this woman, poor woman, had been mugged out on the street,” he later testified in a deposition. He brought her up to his apartment, gave her a glass of water, then took her to the ER at Roosevelt Hospital.

Two days later, when Francois showed up at a Domestic Workers United meeting, she still had a black eye. When she announced that it was her boss who had hit her, the room was stunned. “Let’s go get him now!” shouted Deloris Wright, the 55-year-old nanny who was running the meeting. “This man don’t know what he did. He just opened a can of worms.”

The organization found a lawyer for Francois, and in 2009, she filed a lawsuit against her former employers, Matthew Mazer and Sheryl Shade, accusing them of not paying overtime and him of assaulting her. In court papers, Mazer and Shade have denied all of Francois’s accusations and painted a very different picture of what occurred. They contend that Francois was the aggressor, that she actually injured Mazer by “punching him in the stomach, kicking him, choking him, placing her knee on his back, throwing him to the ground.” In addition, her former employers accused her of “shouting obscenities and anti-Semitic remarks.”

“My client was not the assailant ... He responded to what was initiated by her,” says George D. Rosenbaum, a lawyer representing Francois’s former employers. “My client has adamantly said he did nothing wrong.” Through their attorney, Mazer and Shade declined to be interviewed.

In the meantime, Francois’s former employers have become the targets of Domestic Workers United protests. One Sunday morning this past spring, some 30 women gathered on the sidewalk outside the family’s apartment building on West 57th Street, marching in a circle, carrying signs, and chanting, “Justice for Pat!”

As one speaker after another took the microphone, their complaints extended far beyond Francois’s case.

“We’re here to say we’re not going to take it anymore!”

“We are not uneducated, stupid workers!”

“We are raising a generation that is going on to Harvard and Yale, who may not even remember your name because you are an afterthought!”

Passersby could have been forgiven for assuming that all these women have terrible employers, but that’s not entirely accurate. “I’m with a wonderful family right now,” says the event’s emcee, Christine Lewis, who’s been working for the same Upper West Side family for thirteen years. In fact, she says she has never had a terrible employer. “You know why?” she says. “I would walk away.”