A federal appeals court ruled that a wealthy widow would have to forfeit her 34-room mansion after forcing an undocumented worker to work in slave-like conditions in her upstate New York home, Courthouse News reported this week. Annie George lost her appeal to overturn her 2013 conviction for harboring Valsamma Mathai, an Indian national whose visa expired, for more than five years as a live-in domestic worker.
Mathai received a visa to work at the United Nations in New York City, but became undocumented when she began her employment with the George family in 2005. A $1,000 per month wage was promised to care for the Georges’ six children, but Mathai was paid only a total of $26,000 over the course of five years. Taking into account minimum wage and overtime, Mathai should have been paid at least $317,000.
Mathai testified in 2013 that she worked from 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., received no time off, lived in a closet, and was prohibited from leaving the 20,000 square-foot mansion. Mathai’s son contacted a human trafficking hotline after learning of his mother’s living conditions. He also released an audio clip of George allegedly threatening repercussions against his mother over her legal status. George was convicted to eight month of home detention, five years’ probation, and was told to forfeit her mansion. She appealed the conviction stating that forfeiture was too harsh a penalty, claiming that she hadn’t known of Mathai’s legal status at the time of her employment at the Llenroc mansion.
“Forfeiture is allowed by law in this case because Llenroc was where the crime took place for which George was convicted, harboring an illegal immigrant,” the Times Union explained regarding the federal appeals court decision. “Whether Llenroc will actually be seized by the government is unclear. George’s appeals attorney, Mark Baker, is described in media reports as predicting a settlement could be worked out that would allow George’s family to stay in the home.”
Domestic workers are often overworked, but undocumented immigrants, in particular, are more exploited and vulnerable to abuse because they’re already in violation of labor laws. A national Domestic Workers United survey of 2,000 nannies, housecleaners, and elder care providers in 14 U.S. cities found that “85 percent of undocumented immigrants who work in substandard conditions do not complain because they fear their immigration status will be used against them.” The report also found that at least one in four domestic workers were paid less than minimum wage, while 35 percent reported that they worked long hours without breaks.
In 2010, New York became the first state in the country to pass a basic labor bill of rights for domestic workers which includes nannies, caregivers, and home health workers, allowing for the right to overtime pay, a day of rest every seven day, and three paid days of rest each year. But while the law also extends to undocumented immigrants, who are estimated to make up one-third of the 120,000 to 240,000 domestic worker workforce in New York, the fact sheet states “workers must have work authorization in order to receive unemployment insurance.”
California, Hawaii, and Massachusetts are the only other states that have passed expanded labor rights for domestic workers, but not every state has guaranteed protections for undocumented immigrants.