For Nannies, Hope for Workplace ProtectionFordham Law Community Economic Development Clinic in The New York Times, June 02, 2010
In a city of secret economies, few are as vital to the life of New York as the business of nannies, the legions of women who emancipate high-powered professionals and less glamorous working parents from the duties of daily child care.
Those nannies, as well as other domestic workers who make possible the lives of New York’s eternally striving work force, have long gone without basic workplace guarantees that most employees take for granted.
That appears likely to change soon.
The State Senate this week passed a bill that would require paid holidays, sick days and vacation days for domestic workers, along with overtime wages. It would require 14 days’ notice, or termination pay, before firing a domestic worker.
The Assembly passed a similar measure last year, and lawmakers expect that the two versions will be reconciled and that Gov. David A. Paterson will sign what they say would be the nation’s first such protections for domestic workers. It would affect an estimated 200,000 workers in the metropolitan area: citizens, legal immigrants and those here illegally as well.
Albany has wrestled with similar legislation for six years. The bill that passed the Senate, 33 to 28, on Tuesday had faced opposition, largely from Republicans, based on additional costs to the employers and the extension of workplace protections to illegal immigrants. Advocates in California and Colorado hope that similar legislation will be introduced in their states next year, said Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Ms. Poo said the effort was driven by workers who felt that they worked in a “wild west” atmosphere because of the lack of standards.
“You have some employers that are very good and some that are not, and there is nothing mediating that relationship,” she said. “So early on, workers said, ‘We need basic protections and guidelines so that we won’t be at the whim and mercy of our employers.’ ”
Gueisa Alvarez, 40, a nanny for two decades, said she felt exploited by families early in her career, before she attained the confidence to stand up for herself. She said she hoped a law would protect new workers.
“It will inform them of things they don’t understand as young women coming from some other country and just trying to make some money,” Ms. Alvarez said.
But among domestic workers, there are some doubts that immigrants lacking legal documentation would be willing to report violations of a new wage law to a government agency.
“If you are legal in this country, you will benefit from it, but if you are not, then I don’t think it will do much for you,” said Rhea Bolivia, who immigrated from the Philippines and works as a nanny for a family with two small children on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Once an employee is hired, state labor laws become enforceable, regardless of the employee’s immigration status. Penalties have been issued against supermarkets, restaurants and other employers for failing to pay overtime to groups of employees that included illegal immigrants. The legislation would give the State Labor Department and the attorney general the power to enforce its provisions.
State Senator Diane J. Savino, a Democrat who sponsored the bill in her chamber, said domestic workers and farm workers were excluded from New Deal-era labor protections to appease Southern Democrats at a time when most of the workers were black.
“The same prejudices that applied to them in 1935 have continued to apply to them both in federal law and state laws,” said Ms. Savino, who represents parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island.
The potential for additional costs to the families who hire the caretakers is not clear. Many already voluntarily provide such benefits. Domestic workers are now covered by minimum-wage laws, and the bills would set no other mandatory wage levels.
The bills would increase the risks of getting caught for employers who pay domestic workers off the books to avoid taxes. “That’s what we are trying to end,” Ms. Savino said.
But for nannies and parents alike, the legislation, if enacted, could well create a kind of baseline for negotiations over pay, hours and benefits. Now, the dealings typically leave both sides unsure of what is fair, and in the end, employers sometimes feeling guilty and employees feeling shortchanged.
"We are really looking toward healing the divide between employee and employer," said Sarah Fields, program coordinator at the advocacy group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.
The Senate bill would nullify the requirement of 14 days’ termination pay if an employer “acted upon a good faith and reasonable belief that the employee had committed assault.”
But State Senator Andrew J. Lanza, a Republican from Staten Island, said he voted against the bill because it might cause some mothers to keep quiet about caregivers suspected of being abusive in their homes rather than providing termination pay and possibly having to explain themselves in court.
“I just think that’s wrong when it comes to a parent-child situation in a person’s home,” Mr. Lanza said.
The Assembly bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright of Harlem, would not require paid vacations, paid holidays or severance pay.
Governor Paterson made public remarks last year saying that he supported the spirit of the Assembly bill. Lawmakers say his office will be involved in reconciling the two versions. Mr. Paterson’s spokesman said Wednesday that the governor would not commit to signing the legislation until he could evaluate a bill passed by both houses.
After going nowhere for years in the Republican-controlled State Senate, the Assembly bill was expected to be approved last June by the Senate, after it came under Democratic rule. But the hopes of domestic worker groups waiting outside were dashed as Senate business stalled in fighting among Democrats.
“We were literally there when the Senate came to a screeching halt,” said Priscilla Gonzalez, director of Domestic Workers United. Ms. Gonzalez started her group, which now has 3,000 members, after seeing what her mother went through as a nanny and housecleaner.
Ms. Alvarez, the nanny, said she came to the United States from Bolivia when she was 8. Starting when she was 20, she worked in a variety of unappealing nanny jobs, including one for a family that refused to give her time off to take her own daughter to a hospital after an injury.
She said her current employer, a wealthy family with one child, already gave her a better package than what would be guaranteed in the Senate bill. But sitting among nannies at a Central Park playground, she said the lack of legal standard left many nannies less fortunate.
“I am one of the lucky ones,” she said.