My mom and her friends shared a cleaner (let’s call her Maria) for about 30 years. When Maria came into their lives, she owed money to Social Security, so she asked to be paid off the books. Now she’s ready to retire and has no savings, pension, or Social Security benefits. I told my mom and her friends that they should give Maria money, enough for her to contribute to the rent and bills for the apartment she shares with her daughters. They’ve agreed to each contribute $25 to $50 a week. I wish it were more, but all of them are widowed, in their mid-80s, and worried about money. Then a second problem arose: My mom’s friends say Maria should be given the option of receiving a lump sum. I’ve been trying to explain that this could put Maria at risk. She could be kidnapped the next time she visits Mexico and the money extorted from her (this has recently happened to some immigrants), or her family could lean on her for money if they have an emergency or want to start a business. Far better to do a direct debit each month so she doesn’t wind up completely penniless. In case they’re worried about not being able to provide for her after they die, I told them another option would be to give me a lump sum, and I could do direct monthly transfers to Maria. We’ve been discussing this for months, and the group is being a bit slow in coming to a decision. How do we balance Maria’s dignity and safety?
—Wanting to Do Right
Dear Wanting to Do Right,
First, congratulations to you, your mom, and her friends for beginning this complicated conversation, says Amy Cohen, the organizing director of Hand in Hand, a group of domestic employers pushing for better pay and working conditions for nannies, house cleaners, and home attendants. It’s also terrific that your mother and her friends are pooling their resources to help Maria retire. “What’s most important,” Cohen stresses, “is that they do something.”
Too often, well-intentioned domestic employers begin to address a problem like this and then get bogged down in details, overthinking the issues. This happens for a couple of reasons. The relationships are often close, long-term, and deeply trusting; after all, they take place in the intimate space of the home. The employers often sincerely care about the workers. And yet, Cohen points out, there is “no HR department, no structures in place” to handle any of these questions, and “domestic work has for so long been in the shadows and unregulated.”
In this country, the first domestic workers were slaves and indentured servants, so the employer class became used to getting free household labor. Because of that history, domestic workers have fewer legal rights than almost any other group of workers, although they have been organizing, with some success, to change that.
Your mom and her friends may also be dragging their feet because they feel guilty that they can’t contribute more money to Maria’s retirement. Since there’s no public social insurance program for such situations, workers like Maria end up dependent not only on the good intentions of their employers but also on what their bosses, often retirees themselves, can afford. While that’s unfair to Maria, it’s also not her employers’ fault that they can’t do more. Cohen emphasizes that it’s much better that Maria get something than nothing.
The question of how the money should be paid to Maria—in regular installments or in a lump sum—may be simpler than it seems. Her employers should ask her which option she prefers, as she is most likely the best judge of the risks as well as the upsides of each approach. However, Cohen stresses that when her employers approach her, it’s important that they emphasize that they are already planning on paying something for her retirement, so she won’t feel she’s expected to protest or talk them out of it. “Sometimes the employee will say, ‘I can’t possibly accept that,’ when she means, ‘How generous of you!’ How they present it matters,” Cohen says. “They are in a position of power.”
If readers want help with similar questions, check out some of Hand in Hand’s online resources at domesticemployers.org and consider downloading Alia, an app developed by the National Domestic Workers Alliance to make it easier to provide house cleaners benefits.
I’m bothered by the fact that in my social circle (mostly white, liberal professionals), moms get together with other moms but never the dads—a pattern I have contributed to. This has meant not only a restricted community of people I have had access to socially but also that there have been fewer people in this social circle who can help me out. When I do hear of dads arranging weekend outings (including father-daughter hikes and such), I think how much my son and I would love to be a part of those. Why haven’t we gotten past restrictive gender roles around child care and socializing? Is it just my social circle, or is this a wider phenomenon?
Dear Bewildered Mom,
I’ve noticed this, too. One problem is persistent stereotypes about what humans enjoy—that only men want to hike or watch their kids play sports (while women, I suppose, “prefer” to clean the bathroom). Heterosexuality is also still shrouded in paranoia: Dads might fear that if they go out of their way to befriend moms, they’ll be seen as creepy, and moms may worry that they’ll be viewed as sluts or husband stealers if they try to hang out with the dads. In my experience, one can accomplish a lot by pretending such concerns don’t exist. Ask the dads if they’d like to get together and take the kids out for mini-golf, hikes, or whatever they and their kids might enjoy. This won’t work, of course, if the dads in your circle are regressive clods who don’t want to hike with women or can’t see you as anything other than a sex object, but in that case, you wouldn’t want to hang out with them anyway.
Have a question? Ask Liza here.