It's a balmy afternoon. I'm sitting in the sun, enjoying the sound of water nearby and dusting off the sand between my toes. As I close my eyes and listen to the voices around me, I try to convince myself I'm on some Caribbean paradise. But alas, no such luck! I am on the island of Manhattan. The sand between my toes is from the toddlers' sandbox nearby, the sound of water emanates from a wading pool, and the only hint of tropical paradise are the Caribbean nannies taking care of their charges.
According to reports, in New York state more than 200,000 women (Caribbean, Latina and African) work as nannies, companions and housekeepers. Long hours, meagre wages and to a certain extent drudgery, can be said to typify their existence. It is not unusual for domestic workers to log ten to sixteen hours of work per day, and to do so without the benefit of overtime pay, severance pay, health insurance, disability or even regular vacation. The few protections afforded domestic workers are generally not enforced. Employers, cognizant of this fact, often use it to their advantage.
Domestic Workers United compiled a collage of stories which was then forwarded each week to legislators in Albany. Below is a sampling of their stories.
"I worked all day and into the night. Most nights I would get three to four hours of sleep. I was never given holidays because my employers said I was not an American so the holidays were not for me.
When I had breast surgery, my employer said she would only allow my cousin to work 4 days for me and I would have to come back to work or I would not be paid. My employer called me two days after my surgery and demanded that I come back to work right away. I went back to work 4 days after my surgery with stitches in my right breast and a bandage over my chest.
My job ended the day my employer beat me and pushed me down from her porch, injuring my back. While she was beating and kicking me, she was saying to me I was "nothing but a n***er" and she wanted me off her property. She kicked, she punched me, I fell down, hit my head on the sidewalk. I don't know how long I was passed out, but she was cursing and saying that she had wanted to call me a n***er for three years. And her words -- because I was a n***er, no one would listen to me because she was an upstanding citizen of Massapequa Park and she pays taxes. That's how my job ended."
"I found work in a house, caring for a disabled youth. I ended up doing everything -- the housecleaning, the ironing, the food. I had to carry him and help him in the bathroom. I had to bathe him and even brush his teeth. And for all of this, I was paid $2.00 per hour.
I slept in the basement, where the sewage often overflowed. I had to find cardboard in order to walk around and get out of the basement to go and perform my daily housework. I also had to pick up wood in addition to the cardboard in order to pass through and also to open the backdoor so I could step outside to the sun and for the stench to leave.
Two and a half years later, my employer -- on my day off -- called to tell me she needed me early. I arrived and I told her I am here like you asked me. And it was to tell me that I no longer had work. Well, you can imagine how one would feel -- after a shock like that -- without telling me why. She offered no explanation.
I asked her for permission to stay in the house that night so I could go out and find another place to live -- I could not even sleep thinking about where I would go next. No one knows what I went through that night."
"The beginning of my experience as nanny/housekeeper for my employer was a good one. She treated me well, complimented my work and my dedication. She knew that I took care of her son and she trusted me. Back then we had a good relationship. However, my employer did not pay me on a regular basis from the beginning.
Therefore I started to write down the days that I worked and the amount she paid me, to keep track of the amount she owed me. When the amount of money she owed me accumulated, she started to humiliate me. After a while, she would say that I did not speak English, and that I did not deserve the salary that she was supposed to pay me. She had one friend who would come over purposely to scream at me and insult me.
Many times around 11:00 o'clock at night, my employer would wake me up and she would ask me to clean the floor with Clorox Bleach, saying that the house was dirty and that I had to clean it. I had to buy food for me, for her son, and for the dog because she would not give any money for the groceries. With the little money that she randomly paid me, I was able to do that.
What started with a good relationship ended as a sad story. I had to take my employer to court in order for her to pay the salary she owed me. She always asked me to wait, that she did not have the money."
"One day, I got sick. I was sweating and shivering, and I fell on the couch. I needed to go home, but she said, 'Freda, I have a meeting, take two Tylenols.'
Domestic workers are not supposed to get sick, you're not supposed to take time off. When I needed to go to the doctor, I would come to her a month ahead and my employer would write it down and say, 'I'll see what I can do for you.' Sometimes she would say, 'Do you have a friend who can fill in for you?' Then, she wouldn't pay her -- I'd have to pay her myself."
"I worked with a family in Manhattan for three consecutive years. The second day on the job, the employer started in on me. I was in the living room when he went to shower. From there, he called out to me, 'Elizabeth, please get me the phone.' I entered the room and responded, 'Where are you?' 'In the shower,' he answered. When I entered, he had the curtain opened completely. I was shocked. I grabbed the phone and threw it. I was furious.
During the day, three of us would work there. My daughter would arrive at 8am. The employer's wife would leave for work at 8:30-8:45. He would stay in the house alone with my daughter and the children. In that interim until 9:30 he would take out his penis and walk around the house.
He would call her to the bedroom and she would find him in there with his pants down. My daughter kept this to herself for a long time until she finally told me about it one day. And then he would plead with me, 'Mom please be on time, I can't be alone with him for a long time.' I was supposed to start work at 11am; although they didn't pay me for these hours, I would arrive early to be with my daughter.
That is when I approached DWU and asked them to write me a letter. I gave it to him and just like that he fired me, saying that he no longer needed my services. I was also demanding holidays, sick days, and vacation because in all the time I worked with them I never once got to rest; I was exhausted.
The other workers said, 'That man is fresh. But we have to pretend that we don't see anything...because we really need this job.' He continues doing what he does, and his wife is none the wiser. When he fired me, she begged, 'Elizabeth don't go,' because she knew that I was good at my job."
Recently, Domestic Workers United hosted a twelve-hour vigil outside the office of Gov. David Paterson, to honor the contributions of domestic workers and to ask Gov. Paterson to reciprocate by making sure the concerns of domestic workers are put on the agenda when the senate reconvenes in the fall. Present at the press conference were labor leaders; women activists (Gloria Steinem, Barbara Ehrenreich); organizers (Hector Figueroa, Stuart Appelbaum, Jonathan Tescini and Kevin Powell); the son of a domestic worker, and a domestic worker, among others. Interfaith leaders from different traditions participated in events. Throughout the day, domestic workers gave testimonials about working conditions. There was even a play, "Exit Cuckoo", by Lisa Ramirez.
Earlier this week, in a conversation with Ai-jen Poo, lead organizer for Domestic Workers United, she told me that the Assembly recently passed a domestic workers "inclusions bill" which covers overtime after 40hours per week, one day of rest per week, inclusion in state human rights and collective bargaining laws, and inclusion of part-time domestic workers in disability laws. Additionally, the Commissioner of Labor is mandated to conduct a feasibility study of domestic workers achieving standards and benefits similar to those outlined in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights -- absent the law. According to Ms. Poo, "we will continue the struggle next year, to fight for core provisions of the bill that were not passed in the Assembly, such as paid sick days and paid holidays".