Domestic Workers Suffer Dismal Pay And Abuse, National Study Finds

domestic workers; nannies

Federal agents descended on a sprawling 34-bedroom New York mansion in May 2011. They found an Indian immigrant woman there who told them that for 5½ years she had been caring for the children of the manor for 17 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year -- at 85 cents an hour. At night she slept on the floor of a walk-in closet.

Such an extreme case might be rare, but the exploitation of domestic workers is not. Experts have long pointed out that domestic employees are particularly vulnerable to abuse, as they're primarily women of color, laboring in isolation with few legal protections. But we now have a glimpse of the extent, thanks to the first large-scale national survey of domestic workers in U.S., released this week by an advocacy group, the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

The report paints a far grimmer portrait of our country's caregivers than those with supermodel looks and six-figure paychecks on "Beverly Hills Nannies," or who school parents in "Supernanny" or "Nanny 911." According to the survey of over 2,000 nannies, caregivers and housecleaners in 14 metro areas, over a third of domestic workers are undocumented immigrants and live in fear of exposure. Toiling for another person's family, the report finds, often prevents a person from being able to care for her own.

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The survey found a significant number suffer from dismal pay.
  • About 1 in 4 domestic workers are paid below their state's minimum wage. Overall, live-in nannies earn an average of $6.76 an hour, live-in housecleaners $5.12. But some reported earning as little as $1.50 an hour.
  • A full 60 percent spend more than half their income on housing.
  • One in 5 said that they had no food in their homes in the past year, because there was no money to buy any.

Undocumented immigrants receive punishing wage penalties (earning 18 percent less if they're a caregiver, 21 percent if they're a nanny). And 10 percent of domestic help report being paid less than what they'd been promised.

The intimacy of domestic work makes it much easier for days to go long and tasks to bleed together, particularly when it comes to live-in help. Anna, one of the women profiled in the report, says that she works from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. in a Manhattan home, earns $1.27 an hour, hasn't had a day off in 15 months, and sleeps on a mattress between the children's beds.

The survey also described other dismal working conditions for domestic workers:
  • Almost half said that they had to be on-call at any time.
  • One in 4 said that in the last week their work prevented them from getting at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep.
  • More than 1 in 3 said that they had been insulted, verbally assaulted or threatened in the past 12 months.

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Although you might think of the home as a safe and humane space, the report finds that it can be a hazardous workplace. Domestic laborers climb to hard-to-reach places, scrub on their knees, move heavy furniture and use toxic cleaning products.

Twenty-nine percent of housecleaners report suffering from skin irritation, and a fifth have trouble breathing. Twenty-nine percent of caregivers injured their backs in the past 12 months. These medical conditions take an especially brutal toll on the domestic worker; 82 percent don't get paid sick leave, and nearly two-thirds don't have health insurance.

Why Most Workers Don't Fight To Improve Working Conditions

A domestic worker who complains about her wages or benefits can be fired -- legally. (Only workers who complain as a group are protected under the law.) Domestic workers can be harassed or discriminated against -- legally. (Federal discrimination law only applies to companies with at least 15 employees.) Domestic workers also can be made to labor in unsafe conditions -- legally. (The Occupational Safety and Health Act does not apply to workers who perform household tasks.)

Not surprisingly, then, 9 in 10 domestic workers who've had problems with their working conditions in the previous 12 months said that they didn't complain, the report says, because they were afraid they'd lose their jobs. And 42 percent were worried that their employer would react with violence.

The size of the domestic workforce has soared in recent decades, as women have left homes for offices. And it will continue to rise, as more aging baby boomers need home care. The U.S. economy now relies on domestic work. There are 726,000 nannies, housecleaners and caregivers working in private homes, according to the Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey. And this doesn't include the workers hired through placements agencies, employed by private cleaning companies, or the undocumented immigrants who hesitate to answer when Census Bureau agents knock on their doors.

But for many reasons, this army of workers don't have the protections, or security, granted the rest of the workforce. Hidden behind middle class doors, however, this is almost impossible to see. The National Domestic Workers Alliance urges individual employers to write clear contracts, and offer their domestic help livable wages, rest breaks, paid sick days, notice of termination, and health coverage -- or extra wages to get it themselves.

The group also proposes policy changes, so that domestic workers can take refuge in the same laws as everyone else working in America. For centuries, domestic workers have been primarily minority and immigrant women, working for low pay and with little means to improve their lots. The only differences today are the countries where these women are born, the soaring number of them, and the fact that we have data that suggests how prevalent their problems really are.

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