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Gayle Kirshenbaum Headshot

#BeTheHelp on Oscar Night

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2012-02-23-MimiHo.IloveMyNanny.jpg

Photo: Mimi Ho, member of Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association, with her children, her friend's child and the nanny, Xiao Ying, who cares for them.

Like the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, Oscar night is a night of American togetherness. On February 26, we'll all be serving up cocktails or pizza to family and friends, dishing on the dresses and rooting for our best-picture favorites.

Whatever the fate of The Descendants, The Artist, and The Help, the success of those Oscar night parties will, as always, depend on "the help."

At 2:00 in a house in Santa Monica, a housecleaner will scrub every square of tile in the guest bathroom, the one closest to the T.V.

At 6:00 in a Chicago condo, a nanny will read Goodnight Moon to two pajama-clad kids while their parents head to an Oscar bash at their neighbor's house.

At 8:00 on a New York City street, an eldercare provider will wheel a man to his son's apartment building just in time for Billy Crystal's opening monologue.

But this year, there will also be Oscar parties where The Help's Aibileen and Minny won't be the only domestic workers in starring roles.

From coast to coast, domestic employers will gather to honor the workers who care for their homes, children, and elderly parents.

These employers will take action on behalf of today's 2.5 million domestic workers as part of the #BeTheHelp Campaign, sponsored by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and supported by Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association.

As a member of Hand in Hand, I believe that caring homes and just workplaces do, in fact, go hand in hand. On Oscar night, some employers in our network will join domestic workers to watch the awards. Others will host parties in their homes to call attention to the undervalued work that happens there every day.

When I went to see the The Help, based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, I was appalled, like so many movie-goers, by the abuse and indignities endured by African-American women who worked in the homes of white families in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s.

But as a white woman who once employed a Jamaican woman as my son's part-time nanny -- one of the hundreds of thousands of mostly white domestic employers in New York City who rely on the labor of mostly immigrant women of color -- I was also struck by how little has changed for many workers.

While some families are good employers who establish mutually respectful relationships with the workers in their homes, many others exploit the fact that most labor laws fail to protect domestic workers.

I know of employers who, every day, come home hours late and fail to pay overtime; who refuse to offer paid sick time; who talk about their nanny as a "member of the family" but never as an employee owed paid vacation time.

Today, just as in Jackson, Mississippi 50 years ago, a domestic worker's wages and benefits are largely determined by employer values and whim.

That's why, along with the food and celebrity gossip at our parties, we'll also offer online petitions to support the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and the opportunity to send comments to the U.S. Department of Labor in support of federal labor protection for domestic workers.

Brooklyn employer Marjorie Fine is hosting a party to celebrate the person who allows her to go to work with the peace of mind that her house is being cared for; "the wonderful woman," she says, "who has cleaned my home for the last 14 years."

Seth Weiner says he'll be joining domestic employers and workers at a Los Angeles party on Oscar night because "the nannies who helped raise me continue to be important in my life."

On February 26, members of Hand in Hand will join domestic workers around the country in cheering on Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, the extraordinary actresses who brought their stories to life.

We will also join the national campaign to honor caregiving work by bringing long overdue standards to this industry.

That's how we can all #BeTheHelp.

Take Action today by signing this petition: http://www.change.org/petitions/bethehelp-support-domestic-workers. To learn more about #BeTheHelp and to host an Oscar Party, visit www.domesticworkers.org. To find out how families who employ domestic workers are involved, visit www.domesticemployers.org.

Gayle Kirshenbaum is a founding member of Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Association.