By Sharon Lerner
June 12, 2012
In her twenty-two years of working as a nanny, Jennifer Bernard has seen her share of humiliations—sixty-plus-hour weeks, low pay with no overtime, last-minute schedule changes. “Sometimes they’d call at the end of the day and say ‘We have to have a late dinner,’ ” she says. Even when Bernard had her own young son at home, she felt like she couldn’t say no.
But that sense of powerlessness has all but vanished since the New York Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights went into effect in 2010. When Bernard was looking for a new job six months ago, the first time she had looked for work since the law passed, she felt able to make her limits and expectations clear. “I said I was not willing to do some kinds of housework,” says Bernard, who’s 56 and came to this country from Trinidad in 1990. “I said my job is to take care of the baby and I do it well and it takes a lot of time. I said it and did not feel bad about it.”
Perhaps more remarkable, the Park Slope mother who went on to hire Bernard to care for her newborn was similarly straightforward. “For the first time, I was asked to fill out an application and do a background check,” says Bernard. “And then it just hit home with me that this is a real job.”
This was the intended effect of this first-of-its-kind state law : that by guaranteeing them overtime at the rate of time and a half, a day off every week, and a statement of hours, among other basic labor protections, privately employed nannies, cooks, housekeepers and home health aides would be treated more like other workers.
While they push for enforcement, domestic workers are still fighting for labor protections that weren’t included in the law, such as the right to collectively bargain, which the law stopped short of granting. (The law directed the Department of Labor to study the feasibility of collective bargaining for domestic workers. The department produced a report acknowledging challenges in December 2010 .) No doubt, the ability to negotiate as a group would bring nannies and other privately employed domestic workers closer to getting severance pay, advance notice of termination, and sick days—other benefits they still lack. Perhaps even more important, it would help bring them into the larger national movement of agency-employed domestic workers. But federal and state labor laws specifically prohibit privately employed domestic workers from unionizing. And, so far, only a fraction of domestic workers employed by agencies—mostly home health aides paid with Medicaid dollars—have joined unions.
Many of them were on hand at the New York Care Congress on June 3, when about 600 people crammed into Pace University’s gymnasium to demand dignity and flex their political muscle. The event focused on boosting wages and benefits in this field. But its power lay in focusing on the humanity that unites care workers and their employers.
“We’re here because we care about each other and the future of our country,” Ai-jen Poo, the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance , shouted to the crowd. Poo used the same emotional appeal when she led New York’s effort to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights a few years back: that the real, loving people one both sides of the domestic work equation stand to benefit from improved treatment of workers, and that the best way to do it is through politics. “Caring is about voting,” Poo concluded over the hooting of her supporters.
In the audience, clapping and waving a paper flag along with her fellow workers, Jennifer Bernard agreed that political organizing is the answer for domestic workers. “Being a nanny is an isolated job,” said Bernard, “and we need to be able to work together.”
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