If You Want Better Rights For Domestic Workers, Organize The Parents

CREDIT: Matthew Bologna Photography

Parents who took Hand in Hand's pledge on Thursday night with a domestic worker

On Thursday evening in Brooklyn, a campaign launched that could start to change the working conditions for some of the most vulnerable workers. Among a crowd of more than 120 people, parents took a pledge to do right by the nannies and housekeepers they employ.

Hand in Hand, an organization that focuses on the people who employ domestic workers, launched “My Home is Someone’s Workplace,” a project aimed at getting the parents and other employers who hire nannies, home health aides, and housekeepers to sign a pledge toward fair labor practices and offer them a checklist of things they can do to get there. “The goal of the campaign is both for employers to recognize the fact [that they are employers] and to shift the conversation around labor,” Danielle Feris, Hand in Hand’s director, told ThinkProgress, “and also to implement the law,” New York State’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, passed in 2010. It even aims to go beyond what’s in the law and emphasize things not covered, like regular check ins and evaluations, cost of living raises and bonuses, and health care and worker’s compensation coverage.

New York’s bill of rights requires time-and-a-half in overtime pay for putting in more than 40 hours a week, a day of rest each week and three extra days each year, and protection for sexual or racial harassment. But there is no guarantee that nannies and housecleaners will see a big difference. A year later, just 15 percent of Park Slope parents said they paid their nannies overtime, with nearly half who did paying the normal rate. Things had improved by last year, with 53 percent saying they pay overtime. But just 21 percent pay the required time-and-a-half rate, and that still leaves nearly half neglecting that part of the law.

“You can pass these bills, but it’s really about bringing them back to the community,” said Gayle Kirschenbaum, a founding member of Hand in Hand. While the passage of the bill created some awareness about employers’ obligations, “there’s a gap between general increased awareness and people actually making changes in a widespread way.” Domestic workers can bring complaints, but doing so is especially fraught, given the close relationship with their employers. In a survey of domestic workers, among those who experienced problems with their working conditions, more than 90 percent didn’t complain because they were afraid of losing their jobs.

The organization also provides resources and workshops to new parents who may not know how to go about navigating what it means to be an employer. Isaac Luria, father of a four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter, said that when he and his wife became new parents, “the next question after having them was what are you going to do for childcare when it’s time for everybody to go back to work? And we didn’t really have a good answer.” Their son ended up being cared for by a nanny three days a week and their daughter has had a full-time nanny. One of the big questions that faced them was what to pay a nanny and how to act as an employer. “Hand in Hand resources on this stuff has been really helpful in helping shape how we make our decisions,” he said. “Some parents just don’t know there’s a different way to do things.” The structure of the checklist was particularly helpful as they tried to figure out what would make sense for their situation. “Too much of this stuff goes unseen and unsaid, and we’ve got to change that,” he added.

That’s a lot more support for parents than there used to be. Kirschenbaum remembered hiring a part-time nanny when her son was three months old. “I was completely unprepared to become an employer in my own home,” she said. She had a nanny who was willing to work with her to understand what those responsibilties could look like. She eventually began to speak publicly about what she learned and to work with other parents and got involved in the fight to pass New York’s bill of rights.

The new campaign is not about getting parents to commit to an entire array of best practices — while Feris says that their research has shown that the majority of employers want to do right by their domestic workers, Kirschenbaum and Luria admitted that not all families they know are as willing — but to work on what they can. The pledge is to have people “just be able to say this is my intention,” Kirschenbaum explained. And “the checklist is about checking off what you can as you can,” she added. The goal is to get 1,000 people to join the pledge by a year from now.

The goal is also to set up a system that can be implemented if and when more laws are passed giving domestic workers better rights. So far California and Hawaii have joined New York and passed bills of rights, and Massachusetts is on the verge of becoming the fourth state. “We’re creating a model that can easily be used in Massachusetts,” Feris said, as well as states like Connecticut and Illinois that could consider bills. “As more bills of rights pass, it’s a way for us to make that real on the ground.”