The Nanny Uprising

Photo: Sarah Wilmer

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.”

Barbara Young lost her job after her hours were reduced. Photo: Sarah Wilmer

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.

Angelica Hernandez sued her former bosses, claiming she was paid less than minimum wage. Photo: Sarah Wilmers

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.”

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.”

Most of the leaders of Domestic Workers United are middle-aged Caribbean women who have been in New York for a decade or more. They’re less vulnerable to abuse than less-experienced nannies, but they have not forgotten what it was like to be new to the city and working fourteen or sixteen hours a day for minimal pay. When they talk about the Bill of Rights, it’s these women they focus on—new immigrants, underpaid and overworked, too scared to stand up for themselves.

It’s been a year and a half since Francois stopped working for Matthew Mazer and Sheryl Shade, but in her mind the trauma of the incident is still very fresh. In her home, she still displays photographs of their daughter. “I love that little girl,” says Francois. “I still love her.” A Snapfish photo album the family made for her in 2008 rests on a shelf. Inside, a photo caption hints at how they once saw themselves: “Pat’s Second Family.”

Francois, now 51, has no kids of her own and lives alone in a tidy apartment just off Flatbush Avenue. In her living room, she’s surrounded by evidence of her political awakening: Malcolm X stares down from one wall; a small U.S. flag, a souvenir from an immigration rally, leans against the windowsill; a poster propped up in the corner features a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

She walks into the kitchen, settles into a chair, and hits the play button on her answering machine. She has kept a series of voice mails chronicling the aftermath of the incident—evidence of an intense relationship gone horribly awry.

The father: “Hi, Pat. It’s me calling. [Our daughter] misses you terribly … If you could please give her a call, I think it would perk all of us up and begin part of the spirit of reconciliation I think the new year warrants and we all deserve—you and she most of all.”

The mother: “Hey, Pat … Still haven’t heard from you. I’m wondering how you’re doing … Are you coming back? … Please call me at some point and let me know. Talk to you. Love you.”

The daughter: “Hi, Pat, it’s me. Just wanted to say hi and please, please, I really miss you … My mom and my dad have changed. My dad has been praying for you to come back and my mom really misses you. And I do, too … Bye-bye.”

As the familiar voices fill the room, Francois hugs her knees to her chest. When she hears the voice of the girl, she becomes visibly distressed, closing her eyes and exhaling loudly.

The father: “Hello, could you please give us a call. It’s important … that we talk. We’ve tried to talk to you before. Please give us a call. Out of mercy’s sake. Thank you.”

The mother: “Hey, Pat … Um. I really need to talk to you. Because of this, uh, my whole life is coming down. Um, and I just … I just need you to talk to me, ’cause I don’t know what to do and I don’t know what you want. And I thought you were my friend … I’m just … I’m so confused … Please do call if you can. Thanks.”

By the time the last voice mail ends, twelve minutes have passed and Francois looks utterly spent. “I’ve been victimized and humiliated,” she says. “I’m a human too.” A tear slides down her cheek. “This man really hurt me.”

After fourteen years as a domestic worker, Francois has little to show for her efforts. No savings, no job, no leads. In recent days, though, she’s had reason to feel optimistic. Over the past six years, she’s made some 25 trips to Albany to lobby for the Bill of Rights. When the State Senate passed it last week, she was looking down from the balcony, tears in her eyes. “It will be reversing decades and decades and decades of injustice,” she says. Now she had something to show for her years of hard work, something more than the photographs of the children she helped raise.

The Nanny Uprising