Domestic Workers Need Rights–but Can Working Families Afford What They’ll Cost?

Domestic Workers Need Rights–but Can Working Families Afford What They’ll Cost?

Domestic Workers Need Rights–but Can Working Families Afford What They’ll Cost?

As domestic workers win state-level struggles for workplace protections, their employers—many of them middle-class families—get stuck with the bill, while the government gets off scot-free.


Deborah Sprzeuzkouski and her husband both work well-paid, full-time jobs in New York City with days that stretch until 6 pm. But they’ve just signed up for a second shift: Deborah just gave birth to their first child, a baby girl. Her position at a nonprofit grants her three months of unpaid maternity leave; his job as a digital compositor offers him three weeks. Once they’ve used up all of their parental leave, they’ll face a dilemma more than 70 percent of American parents struggle with: the difficulty of finding affordable childcare. “We’re just going to have to watch our budget and live the same way we’ll live during my maternity leave, which is on one salary,” says Deborah. “Because the way I’m looking at it, my salary goes to daycare.”

Ideally, Deborah would work part-time with help from a mix of family and babysitters. But neither her nor her husband’s family is local: hers is in France (“My mom is pretty shocked at how bleak the [childcare] options are [in the United States],” she says) and her husband’s is in Washington, DC. She worries that leaving her job or reducing her schedule will hurt her career. Her neighborhood doesn’t have many daycare options, and the available ones cost as much as paying a domestic worker. So although she and her husband aren’t sure how they will afford it—or even whether their daughter needs one-on-one care—they are considering hiring a nanny.

Choosing between different kinds of care is tough for many families, not just Deborah’s. Only 16 percent of the population lives in multigenerational households in which grandparents might be around to help with childcare (nationwide, 48 percent of children are cared for by a relative). On top of that, more and more grandparents are working later into life. Nearly a third of children are in childcare centers or preschools, but while some help children learn and grow, one study found that most centers have poor to mediocre care. Twelve percent provided care that could harm children’s health, safety and development.

So many families turn to in-home care. A full-time nanny can cost over $30,000 a year—and yet about one in five children are in the care of nannies, babysitters or in-home daycare providers. Many wealthy families employ nannies, but there are plenty of others who find it is the only choice or the better of bad options.

The care these workers offer is crucial to parents, and not just because children are in an important developmental stage. Childcare allows working moms to get to their jobs. The number of stay-at-home mothers has dropped four years in a row and is now at 5 million, or about one in four women in a married-couple household. (Nearly half of such households consisted of a stay-at-home mom in 1969.) So it’s no wonder that each day an estimated 12 million children under five spend time being cared for by someone other than a parent—nearly two-thirds of all kids that age. “We are still using an archaic model that there’s a woman at home providing unpaid labor,” says Dr. Mary Gatta, senior scholar at Wider Opportunities for Women. “That’s not the reality now and for many groups throughout history it hasn’t been their reality.”

For the nannies themselves, however, the job is tough and leaves them vulnerable. For too long domestic workers have provided critical childcare services while missing out on fair wages, decent hours and benefits. Because the government has failed to provide and subsidize quality childcare, families, including many in the middle class (68 percent of respondents to a 2010 national survey of in-home childcare providers were employed by two working parents) struggle to find the money for in-home care. And that results in inadequate pay and benefits for caregivers. “The problem we have in the US is that we don’t have a system of supporting working parents and their childcare needs,” says Dr. Robert Drago, research director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “So parents often end up spending a quarter of their income on childcare, and many parents worry about the quality of the childcare they’re getting.” In a recent survey, the largest group of nannies, about 11 percent, reported earning $600 per week, which amounts to $31,200 a year. While hourly wages fluctuate by location, in many major cities it isn’t enough to live on. But even these low wages will come as a heavy cost for a middle-class family.

Domestic workers have a long history of exclusion from labor protections. In 1974, an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act extended coverage to domestic workers, but an overly broad reading of its exemptions has left many domestic workers unprotected. As a result, most have missed out on minimum wages, overtime pay, benefits and protection from discrimination. Families who employ nannies may mean well, but the vast majority don’t pay into Social Security, provide any paid sick leave or vacation time, or offer overtime pay for extra hours worked. Without regulations, nannies are at their employers’ whim, without anywhere to turn in the event of harassment or discrimination. “My employers never suggested we have a written contract,” says Jennileen Joseph, a nanny and founder of a nonprofit for domestic workers called Massachusetts Association of Professional Nannies. “Because there’s no industry standard, there’s no guideline for a conversation.” Joseph loves working with children, but she hates that her industry is “like the wild, wild west.”

That may begin to change. After years of activism, New York just passed the first law requiring time-and-a-half for overtime, at least three vacation days a year and an eight-hour workday and forty-hour workweek for domestic workers. It also grants temporary disability benefits and provides redress for harassment and discrimination. Four other states—California, Illinois, Massachusetts and Colorado—are considering similar bills.

New York’s is a momentous victory for domestic workers, but it also has some parents concerned. “I think [increased rights are] necessary and totally fair,” says Deborah, “but I probably would never be able to afford a full-time nanny at the rate” those protections would require. While the New York bill doesn’t establish a per-hour minimum wage above the state’s minimum, families will be paying far more to keep nannies past the forty-hour workweek if they need extra care. A paid vacation day still costs about $100 or more, while parents have to find a back-up childcare worker. There will be no government subsidies for these extra costs, even though they are crucial to valuing the work nannies do.

If and when more bills enforcing better rights for nannies pass, “the burden would fall on parents almost exclusively,” says Drago. “And they can’t afford it.”

Daycare would be a suitable option if more quality care were available and working parents were offered real help to cover the cost—but daycare workers need to be paid better too. Low pay and benefits have lead to a turnover rate of up to 39 percent in the daycare industry, part of why the care can be poor. But absent that, the government should be at least partially on the hook for the high costs of paying domestic workers, particularly as those costs increase to make the work up to par with living standards. Parents shouldn’t be frantic to find and pay for quality care of young children when so many families rely on two incomes and women are finally catching up in workforce participation. It’s one of the best investments the government can make.

Unfortunately, little effort has been made to legislate better work/family policies. Even though the White House created a Forum on Workplace Flexibility in 2010, President Obama has tabled a bill giving working parents paid sick leave and money in last year’s budget for such programs hasn’t been spent—and these are much easier measures to tackle than national, subsidized childcare. Michelle Obama was rumored to be interested in taking on these matters, but in the end she went with the less controversial issue of childhood obesity.

The case for increasing the rights of domestic workers is clear. These people perform vital jobs that come with few, if any, protections and far too little in pay and benefits. But the rising awareness of this issue offers a perfect occasion to also think about how we got here: while some wealthy families can afford to pay well, many others are caught in a noman’s-land of inadequate options. “As long as we say it’s a private problem and not a social problem,” says Gatta, “it really falls upon the parents and the work that’s being done is never really valued.” Government has to get involved by providing parents with an option that pays workers well and takes the burden off family budgets.

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