It’s Time to Talk to Employers About Domestic Workers’ Rights

As the movement for domestic workers' rights spreads across the country, progressive employers will need a heads up that speaks to their consciences--and their pockets.

By Akiba Solomon Apr 27, 2011

The New York Times recently ran a pessimistic story claiming that precious few workers and employers know about the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, the groundbreaking state law that took effect last November. The first of its kind in the nation, the so-called "nanny law" grants fundamental labor protections to some 200,000 full-time and live-in nannies, housekeepers and elder-care providers in the state.

As Rinku Sen and scores of others have noted, the law marks a major victory for the modern labor movement. After all, a multiethnic mass of worker-directed groups including Domestic Workers United, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, Andolan Organizing South Asian Workers and Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees busted their asses campaigned for more than six years to make this happen. 

Policy-wise, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights also presents a state-based way to repair a racist mutation in the DNA of federal labor law. (Recap: Franklin Delano Roosevelt cut The Help–who just so happened to be 95 percent black and female–out of his New Deal labor laws to appease white, Southern Democrats.Farm workers, who were mostly black, Filipino and Mexican, were also excluded. Go figure.)

Anyway, according to the April 14th Times piece, "A Boon For Nannies, If Only They Knew," New York’s domestic workforce–which is made up of mostly Caribbean, Latin American, African and South Asian women immigrants–haven’t gotten the memo about how they’re entitled to the state’s $7.25 minimum wage, overtime pay, at least one day of rest per week, disability compensation, legal protection against sexual and racial harassment, and other basics. Evidence of this lack of awareness includes an encounter the reporter witnessed between a Domestic Workers United advocate and two Caribbean nannies who said they didn’t know about the law, and the carefully nuanced comments of the group’s director, Priscilla Gonzalez.

In the article, Gonzalez admitted it was a challenge to get the word out to hundreds of thousands of people who work in private homes, are often paid under the table, and fear being fired or deported if they attempt to assert themselves. Keith L. T. Wright, the state assemblyman who sponsored the bill, added, "It comes down to marketing. Maybe we should put a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights on each and every refrigerator door just to let people know."

Now, I–a non-parent, who doesn’t do domestic work or employ a domestic worker–have been casually reading and hearing about the efforts of Domestic Workers United for years. So I wondered how it could be that the savvy, worker-led crew who built the political capital they needed through formal and informal outreach, public rallies, lots of flyers, those ubiquitous yellow T-shirts, and other grassroots organizing methods failed to spread the word to domestic workers affected by the victory. 

I asked Gonzalez about this. She replied, "We can’t quantify the impact at this point, but at least culturally, within the industry, there has been a shift. Parenting blogs are abuzz about it, and workers are also abuzz in the parks and the playgrounds. Although we have a lot of educating to do about the content of the law, at minimum workers know something has happened."

To maintain the buzz, Gonzalez says Domestic Workers United will continue its years-old practice of direct outreach, particularly during the peak months of April through October when workers and their charges are outdoors. 

"Like we’ve always done, we’re meeting workers where they are–in the parks, train stations, playgrounds and at their churches," she said. "Workers who live in the city but work in the suburbs generally have similar schedules, so we’re doing  outreach at their train stations and along certain bus routes. Our members and volunteers are always armed with flyers and newsletters and they’ve reached out to their friends. And now that the law has passed, we’ve been formalizing all of our networks throughout the city and training workers the way unions have traditionally done."

After talking to Gonzalez and poking around the web, I’ve come to think that the outreach challenge lies on the employer side of things. As similar domestic worker bills make their way through the California, Illinois, Massachusetts and Colorado legislatures, I wonder how organizers are going to compel upper middle class, Great Recession-era employers who perceive themselves as cash-strapped, grossly overworked and expendable to their companies. And as Rinku Sen has noted on Colorlines, an increasing number of companies are "loading up on temporary, subcontracted and part-time workers rather than full-time employees" to avoid paying into Social Security and providing unemployment insurance, health coverage, paid sick and vacation days, and workers’ compensation. So how can organizers convey "basic workers’ rights" to people who don’t remember or never knew what they looked like? 

So far, at least in New York, the strategy seems to be centered on appealing to employers’ sense of fairness. "We talk to employers about valuing the [domestic] work that makes [their] work possible," says Briana Carp, an advocate at the Employers for Justice Network, a Domestic Workers United partner. "The first step is for families to identify themselves as employers. Once they see that they are in fact employing people, they see the benefits of professionalizing the experience."

Maybe I’m a cynic. But the "do the right thing" angle makes me nervous.

Looking for a different perspective, I ran this by Katrina Alcorn, a Bay Area-based mother of two and stepmother of one who does part-time, freelance web design and blogs at Working Moms Break about work-life balance, the cost of parenting in America, overwork and other  challenges. 

Alcorn, a one-time union organizer who sees the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights through the lens of nannies and working moms explained, "There are two sides to this for me–on one there are the women who provide child care. They’re doing some of the most important work of our generation but they’re underpaid and undervalued. Then there are the mothers and families who are overworked and don’t have part-time employment options. They’re working eight to ten hours a day plus a commute. They’re not relying on nannies because they’re rich; they’re spending half their income because that’s the only option they have."**

The sticking point, says Alcorn, is overtime pay. (In the New York law, live-out workers earn time and a half after exceeding a 40-hour week; live-ins earn it after 44 hours.)

"If money were no object, overtime pay would not be a deterrent to the hundreds of women I hear from through my blog and talk to in my life. They want to do the right thing. When they have a good nanny, they cherish her [because] she’s keeping their kids physically and emotionally safe. But if she’s barely able to afford her nanny already, and she’s working long hours, [overtime] might be a real problem."

Alcorn has a suggestion for organizers that sounds sensible to me: Develop talking points that address employers’ anxiety about childcare costs and long workdays and the rights and value of domestic workers.

"We can’t turn this into what’s happening in Wisconsin, you know, ‘I don’t have a pension, so why should you guys have a pension?’ And it can’t be, ‘I’m overworked, so you should be, too.’ We need to address both problems–domestic workers rights and the fact that childcare is so crazy expensive in this country."

Now this message won’t work for racist employers who refuse to see the value of domestic work and workers. (Watch Stephen Colbert personify this brand of Angry White Male douchebaggery here.) For them, there’s the power of worker complaints to the labor department, fines for back pay and public shaming if they’re image-conscious muckety mucks.

Even without those kinds of fireworks, I hope major news outlets, including The New York Times, does more about the impact of this law and the growing movement for domestic workers’ rights. It isn’t an instant or data-rich story. But I believe it’s real, it’s urgent and–as the grandchild of a domestic worker who didn’t have these rights–it’s about damn time.  

[**Update: In my attempt to condense Alcorn’s point about why some parents employ nannies instead of sending their children to daycare I misquoted her. The previous version said, "They’re not relying on nannies because they’re rich; [they’re doing it] to avoid spending half their income on daycare." I also deleted "middle class" from the description of her content to ensure a fair reflection of her work.]