It’s About Time: New Bill of Rights for Domestic Workers

In 2002, a satirical novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus ended up on the New York Times bestseller list, which probably didn’t sit too well with all the New Yorkers who had ever employed nannies and/or domestic workers. The book, The Nanny Diaries (which was later made into a movie starring Scarlett Johannson), was widely believed to be a fairly accurate, if exaggerated, look at what nannies go through, especially when they work for nightmare parents.

There will always be nightmare employers of course (although it must be said that not all employers abuse and misuse their staff), but a new bill just passed in the New York State Senate will go a long way toward affording  nannies and other domestic workers protections and rights that up to this point they have not enjoyed.

Domestic workers have traditionally been excluded from normal workers’ rights to things like paid sick leave, holidays and vacation, a set work day, overtime wages and termination pay (or two weeks notice of termination). This new bill will correct that. Naturally the bill has met with opposition (especially from Republicans) on the grounds that it will afford protections to undocumented workers and increase costs to employers.

First of all, undocumented workers are not that likely to report violations because of fear that they will be deported. (And believe me, many employers count on that.) Secondly, employers need to recognize the importance of these workers in their lives. Without them most women and some men would not be free to work outside of the home. They are the backbone of many a household.

It’s human nature to want to get something for next to nothing, but that doesn’t mean that it’s right. Nannies, maids and cooks are employees, not members of the family. All too often employers try to treat their employees the same way that wives and mothers are treated in society, the assumption being that women do what they want for love, not for money.

One nanny placement agency I looked up stated that a lot of their nannies are college students looking to get experience for their careers in child development. What does that signal to a prospective employer? That the nannies aren’t doing it for the money. (Of course, if they’re going to work in that field, they better get used to not making any money—child care providers are notoriously ill-paid.)

But many nannies are actually mothers themselves who leave their own children every day to care for the children of strangers. And some mothers even live thousands of miles and years away from their children while they struggle to make enough money to support them from afar. Theirs is heart-breaking work that deserves to be compensated fairly.

The New York bill leaves the door open for a future feasibility study about awarding additional “common employment benefits” like health insurance, personal leave, collective bargaining and cost of living adjustments, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for such benefits. Let’s just cross our fingers that Governor Paterson will actually sign this bill into law. It’s the decent thing to do.

Frankly, I’m surprised that the bill got this far.

Further reading:  the New York Times, Broadsheet on, the book Global Woman, edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild (Highly recommended!).

One Reply to “It’s About Time: New Bill of Rights for Domestic Workers”

  1. My 1st job was as a nanny with a very nice family luckily . But I have heard of people being held hostages in homes, not allowed to leave even on their days off .These were usually immigrants that didn’t know the law. Hope this law passes . It should be a Federal law, under labor .

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