New Law Isn't Really Helping "The Help"

When New York passed the nation's first Domestic Workers' Bill Of Rights last year, it was a victory both for those who fought for it, mostly immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, and feminism, as it was a blow against the historic devaluation of "women's work." However, seven month after the law went into effect, most domestic workers and their employers are unaware of it.

The law says that domestic workers, including nannies, housekeepers, and elderly caregivers, have:

  • The right to overtime pay at time-and-a-half after 40 hours of work in a week, or 44 hours for workers who live in their employer's home;
  • A day of rest (24 hours) every seven days, or overtime pay if they agree to work on that day;
  • Three paid days of rest each year after one year of work for the same employer; and
  • Protection under New York State Human Rights Law, and the creation of a special cause of action for domestic workers who suffer sexual or racial harassment.

The New York Times talked to domestic workers and employers and found that even if people are aware of the law, many employers aren't interested in modifying their loose existing arrangements, and workers are hesitant to demand their rights, particularly if they are illegal immigrants.

Susan Fox, founder of the website Park Slope Parents, says she's heard little about the issue, adding, "I think in general people feel like they are doing more than this legislation requires." However the complaints nannies frequently share with each other about families expecting them to work extra hours or accept more unpaid time off instead of overtime pay suggest that isn't the case.

Organizers for Domestic Workers United, which pushed for the bill, have been approaching nannies and handing out pamphlets on the issue, but there are 120,000 to 240,000 domestic workers across the state. Now advocates are trying to come up with more effective ways to reach all of them.

The Labor Department has been spreading information online and through foreign consulates and community groups, and Domestic Workers United is planning to to hold workshops for employers and employees. Keith L. T. Wright, the state assemblyman who sponsored the bill said,

"It comes down to marketing ... Maybe we should put a Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights on each and every refrigerator door just to let people know."

One effective way to get the word out would be to publicize the cases of those who violate the law. So far only five complaints have been filed. One has been has been settled, but it doesn't have the makings of of a media scandal; an employer was forced to give a housekeeper overtime pay she owed. Media attention may make more domestic workers aware of their rights, but since so few are coming forward, it may be difficult to even find someone willing to go public with their story.

Domestic Workers' Bill Of Rights [Labor]
A Boon For Nannies, If Only Then Knew [NYT]

Earlier: The Invisible Intimacy Of Women's Work

Image via photomak/Shutterstock.