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The Nanny Wars: New York Steps Up Protection

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It all started with a bowl of spaghetti. The cold, congealed noodles had sat neglected in the back of the fridge for days. Susan, the mother of three, despised leftovers lurking behind the milk. She had repeatedly reminded her nanny, Florence, who had worked for the family for three years, to keep the fridge clean. Annoyed by finding the half eaten spaghetti on Friday, Susan yanked out the bowl leaving it in the sink for Florence to clean. The weekend went by and the bowl sat defiantly in the otherwise empty sink. Florence had washed all the dishes except for the one covered in marinara which now had the consistency of dried Play-Doh.

By Monday evening Susan could stand it no longer and told Florence that if she didn't clean the bowl, she would lose her job. Florence stated flatly, "where I come from, we scrape off our own dishes."

For Florence it was the principle. Susan had left the bowl specifically for her to clean.

Was Susan being petty or simply making a point? Is Florence's behavior understandable or unprofessional? It depends whom you ask. Probe a little deeper into Susan's world and you learn that two of her three children have special needs. She is tense and tired and quickly snaps, even though she claims to adore her nanny. But to Florence, Susan's behavior was disrespectful and inexcusable. And reason enough to possibly forfeit her job.

The mom/nanny relationship is often fragile and fraught with issues. The co-dependent situation it creates between mom and nanny can be unhealthy -- made worse by faulty communication, lack of respect and unclear or unfair expectations. And the intimacy of having someone in your house -- sometimes even living in your house -- who not only cares for your children but sees the piles of bills on your kitchen table, and all your dirty laundry, can blur the boundary between employer and employee. Nannies can become a member of the family and treated like family, which let's be honest, may not always be a good thing.

But the complicated dance and uneven rules of protocol that exist between moms and nannies in New York State may be about to change. And Susan would not be able to fire Florence over the spaghetti, at least not without two weeks notice and severance.

If signed by Governor Paterson, the New York law will affect the estimated 200,000 domestic workers in the New York metropolitan area including nannies, senior care providers and housekeepers -- those here legally and illegally alike. The bill would guarantee a half dozen national holidays, five days vacation, and seven sick days annually, all paid, plus overtime compensation and at least one day off weekly.

While it's appalling that no worker protection exists for the hundreds of thousands of caregivers (largely women) across the country who literally wipe our babies' bottoms and change bed pans for our grandparents, it's hardly surprising. Aside from Australia, the United States remains the only industrialized nation that still lacks a federally mandated paid maternity leave policy. Angola, Madagascar Bulgaria and the entire European continent support their post-partum moms better than we do.

Kathryn Stockett's spectacular, best-selling novel, "The Help," about black maids/nannies in the pre-civil rights south was a cringe-inducing read, where the women were sent to outhouses while simultaneously charged with potty training the white families' children. In an age of helicopter parenting where moms document every bowel movement, it's no longer popular to outsource the raising of your kids. So perhaps a half century after the Civil Rights Act, it may finally be time for caregivers to get the respect that they so fully deserve.

I applaud New York in taking a lead on protecting those legions of hard working caregivers who make it feasible for many of us to go to work with a clear conscience and a less heavy heart. It's time for the country to extend protection to all caregivers. They should not be vulnerable any longer.