At precisely 6:30 a.m. on a surprisingly warm mid-April morning, 11 harried women take their seats in a rented white van outside the Barnes and Noble on the north side of Union Square in New York City. They are members of Domestic Workers United, an advocacy group also known as DWU. Jackie Amezquita, the group's bilingual organizer, leads the women in prayer, asking God for the strength He gave David to fell Goliath.
The image certainly seemed fitting to Priscilla Gonzalez, DWU's executive director, who sat herself in the van's middle row. Asked how she felt, she managed an earnest smile. "Good," she announced. "I'm hopeful but tired."
The object of Gonzalez's hope is passage of a Bill of Rights for domestic workers. First introduced in 2004, its path through the state legislative process has been torturous, as everything from budget impasses to last year's senate coup have intervened to thwart its passage. This year, it was a different story, as years of near misses and disappointments finally seemed at an end.
The bill seeks to extend to nannies, house cleaners and other domestic employees the same protections — such as overtime pay and severance notice — enjoyed by most other employees. It represents one of the only real attempts to bring legal regulations to that has always been a nearly rules-free zone. In the absence of any hard-and-fast standards, those involved in the domestic labor — which involves some 200,000 individuals in New York state alone — often experience wide variations in everything from wages to sick day allowance.
With passage of the bill closer to reality than ever before, the many individuals that comprise this group in New York State — from young mothers struggling to raise their children to the old-hands of nannying, many of whom are mothers themselves — are seeking to offer their own views of the industry, touching on what works, what doesn't and what it's really like to be a part of the nation's largest domestic labor market.
Nannies as Businesswomen
But most domestic workers, even those engaged in the activism DWU promotes, understand that the reality of their industry is not much different than any other in that its workers are judged and compensated on the basis of how well they do their jobs. Regardless of what happens in Albany, those employees with the best skills will attract the highest pay and most consistent work. This is even truer in the increased competition for jobs created by a down economy — an employer's market where the bosses more routinely request to cut hours or wages.
It's this calculation that has led Teresa Leigh to a booth at the main bar of the Four Season Hotel in midtown Manhattan. She is a former domestic worker turned entrepreneur who, for the past three years, has volunteered her time as a teacher for one of the four sessions of a nanny training class run by DWU.
She asks if I'd like anything to drink. "How about something to eat?" she insists in her lilting Southern accent. She orders a Bailey's on the rocks. A tall, skinny young waiter takes her order but before he can leave, she gently taps him on the arm. "I'm sorry. I can't remember your first name." It's Ian, he tells her.
Leigh owns Teresa Leigh Household Risk Management, a firm that specializes in exactly that. She explains the phrase to mean "The management of risk inside of a large household." Essentially, she helps wealthy families avoid getting sued or defrauded by their employees or contractors and advises them on ways to protect their assets — everything from personal property to identities.
She has arrived at the Four Seasons from a meeting with a client and before boarding a plane that evening that will send her home to North Carolina. Leigh describes her background. The daughter of an American naval intelligence officer who served in Europe — "a spy, really," she tells me — and a British mother, she grew up in a home where etiquette was second nature.
"They were very particular about entertaining and about manners and about all things that were etiquette and protocol," she says. "So, I grew up in that household where I just knew those things and that was the skill that I used to help me get a job."
At this, I begin to feel self-conscious — a feeling that will occasionally flair up throughout the interview. I find myself adjusting my posture, wondering whether I'm sagging my shoulders and questioning if I should clasp my hands together or leave them apart when speaking with her.
Leigh's first job was taking care of a man's dogs. It helped her pay the bills as she put herself through college. But she had no illusions as to whether she could survive on what she was making.
"I realized that if I was going to make more money to live that I would have to increase my skills," she says. "I started learning to cook and I literally slept with cookbooks. I'm serious. I would fall asleep reading cookbooks. I would fall asleep reading how to cut up a chicken."
If she didn't know how to prepare a dish, she'd go to a restaurant, introduce herself to the chef and ask him or her how to make it. She got kicked out a few times but more often than not, she found the information she was seeking.
She expanded into cooking for families and working as a low-level personal assistant, but soon ran into the difficulties so many domestic wage-earners face: Her wages were shorted; promised bonuses never materialized. Once, she said, she was told that if she didn't have sex with her employer, she would be fired.
But she continued to educate herself about crystal, china, linen, flowers — anything related to high-end domestic work. She continued gaining skills and she found that as she got better at her job, new offers of employment — managing a dinner party for a night or house-sitting for a weekend — came her way. Still, finding regular, constant sources of income was difficult. Leigh figured out that there were few professional services available to wealthy householders that could offer them knowledgeable household management advice. Sensing an opportunity, she founded her company in 2003.
Her involvement with DWU began three years ago. She had been doing research about organizations supporting domestic workers in New York, where her company was doing a great deal of business.
Remembering the hardships she experienced as a domestic worker, Leigh wanted to help others avoid some of the mistakes she made. "I felt like I had a skill, which was to teach, and to help these workers to do better in their jobs, to understand their employers and to hopefully help them make more money," she explains.
Her first meeting with DWU's leadership was an uneasy one. Leigh thinks they mistrusted a well-to-do white woman claiming to have come from service work and saying she wanted to help domestic workers. But the organization accepted her offer to teach a nanny training class free-of-charge. The program has been a part of DWU ever since.
Allison Julien, a member of DWU's executive board and the coordinator for the class, remembers the discussions about whether to accept Leigh's offer.
"I believe there was [some apprehension]," says Julien, sitting in DWU's tiny office at 1201 Broadway. The board was concerned about Leigh's coming from the perspective of a business owner whose clients are the employers of domestic workers. "It was nothing we had done before and like anything new, there's always a bit of caution from everyone." After some more discussion, the board decided to give Leigh a chance and they have never regretted it, says Julien, who has coordinated the nanny classes since 2006.
The class is one-part financial seminar — focusing on things such as the difference between net pay and gross pay and the importance of saving for retirement — and one-part business seminar, with a focus on what to put on a resume, how to interview for a job and how to negotiate for more money. These are crucial to domestic workers getting ahead, says Leigh.
Leigh, standing at the front of a large classroom, is speaking to the students about the importance of coming to a job interview fully prepared — bring a copy of your resume, arrive on time and that all-important tip: always ask the prospective employer some questions of your own.
"Communicate clearly and professionally. You don't want to speak too loudly or aggressively but speak in a clear voice in which they can hear you," Leigh says.
A woman in the middle of the room tells Leigh of a job interview she had recently. She thought it went well but she never got a call back and couldn't understand why.
"Well, were you wearing what you wore now?" asks Leigh, referring to the woman's t-shirt and sweat pants.
"Si," she answers.
At this, Leigh launches into a long discussion about the importance of dressing up for interviews. The propensity to wear what she generously calls "inappropriate" attire at work — tank tops, short skirts and even thongs — is one of the things that particularly irks Leigh.
"I tell them, 'You can't ask for more money, if you go to work dressed like that!'" says Leigh. "Sometimes I think they do it just to antagonize people. I think it's partly cultural and it's partly that they just don't care. Whatever it is, don't tell me you have money problems with your employer if you dress like that."
Leigh is dressed in a black jacket and pantsuit — Hillary-style. She constantly refers to a photocopied packet she handed out at the beginning of the class. She looks and acts the part of a high-powered motivational speaker for a symposium held for mid-level business executives at some airport Hilton. That's exactly the message Leigh hopes to get across to these domestic workers. "These women, they really are businesswomen. They just don't see themselves that way," Leigh explains. "This is about the business of being a domestic."
It's not always an easy sell for Leigh. When Jackie Amezquita first attended the nanny training course last spring, she admits she was a bit cocky. "I had that mentality of, 'Well, I know it all. I've been doing childcare for however many years. What are you going to teach me? But when you go into a course, you should be open-minded that there are things you can learn and as it turned out there were. It did benefit me," says Amezquita, now DWU's bilingual organizer, who singled out another session about globalization (which Leigh does not teach) as being particularly enlightening.
The other piece of the class is financial education. One of Leigh's biggest complaints is that these women — and they are all women here — fail to grasp the difference between hourly and weekly pay. "The women are fixated on a number like $500 a week. What business people think about is what does this cost me an hour? It's economics. These workers don't understand the economics of the value they're bringing to the job."
To get her point across to her students, Leigh asks students to volunteer how much they are paid per week. One says $500. Leigh walks to the whiteboard at the front of the class and writes 500 divided by 40 on the board, showing it averages out to an hourly rate of $12.50. Then, she divides it by 45, dropping the rate to $11.11. Then, 50, which brings it down to $10.
"You see what happens? 45 hours, 50 hours, 55 hours — how it changes per hour?" Leigh asks the class, referring to employers' propensity to demand more hours from their household employees. "That's why in my opinion, you should always ask for an hourly rate.
Though her answers usually get only silent nods and note-taking from even the more involved students, every once in a while, it's clear that Leigh's personal memory of the hardships of being a domestic worker come through. This is when she gets the strongest response from her students.
After Leigh explains that an average domestic worker should expect to receive about $15 to $25 an hour, or $675 for a 45-hour work week, one student asks if that is a realistic rate given the poor state of the economy. Leigh responds, "I think that families use [the economy] as an excuse because if they still have two jobs and [the husband's] still making a half a million dollars a year, he can pay you $15 and up [an hour]." This receives a round of applause and roars of agreement.
And while Leigh's demeanor is generally serious, she can occasionally let loose with a joke. "I pray to God every day that President Obama, the Congress and the Senate will see the light and give you a green card," she says. She puts her hands together and continues, "I want you to pray, too. Pray. Pray. Pray. Pray," eliciting raucous laughter from the students.
"It's not like these are captains of industry here. These are mostly women who are trying to feed their children. I'm trying to empower them to be as strong as they can be in a very unequal situation," Leigh says.
But Leigh doesn't absolve her students of all responsibility for the undesirable situations in which they often find themselves. She says she would love to be able to recommend some of the students to her clients, but thinks the women have a lot of work to do before they're up to her standards. "A lot of them would probably be shocked by my saying, 'You're late. What's going on here?' A lot of them don't understand the responsibilities that go along with the job," she says. "In order to make more money, you have to get better at your job."
Leigh envisions expanding the class, incorporating classes on crystal, china, linens and table service. As she describes her wish list, I see behind her green eyes a mind feverishly at work, applying the same cold logic that brought her success in business, this time applied to something else: helping others.
"They have something that people need and they have the ability to do it," she says. They're missing the understanding of the information about their rights as workers, about the ability to stand up for themselves."
The class has become so popular that DWU decided to organize two sessions in a single calendar year, a first for the organization. "Seeing [our members] come in on the first day and leave on the last day — it's literally like day and night," says Julien. By the end of the training, their confidence level is boosted, their knowledge is definitely boosted."
Amezquita says the class teaches women much more than nanny tips. She says it helps women realize they are part of a larger movement. "Just because you're a nanny, you're by yourself," she says. "But now, when you have the organization, you realize you have the backing of all these women who are in the same plight as you."
Given her focus on the importance of understanding finances, negotiations and responsibilities, when I ask Leigh what she considers the most difficult part of teaching the class, the heartfelt nature of her response is a real surprise.
"Their self-worth is so low that I spend a lot of my time sending them positive energy about feeling good about themselves as individuals and as women — that they have value," she says, "that they're valuable human beings and they shouldn't be abused."
Tales of abuse are common. Mostly, they take the form of wage theft and forcing nannies to work excessive hours, but more serious incidents also occur. Just ask Patricia Francois.
On the evening of December 18, 2008, a successful Manhattan independent film producer arrived home at his Upper West Side apartment.
Francois and the man's daughter had just finished reviewing lines for a school play. Francois says he began berating his young daughter for failing to memorize the lines, bringing the girl to tears as she begged him to stop yelling at her.
"I loved her like she was my own child," Francois says of the girl. Francois insisted that the child did learn her lines and told her father to stop verbally abusing his daughter. The father replied that she was his daughter and he would raise her as he saw fit, to which Francois replied, "I don't care if she's your daughter!"
Her employer, incensed, called Francois "a black bitch."
"Well, you're the bigger bitch," she shot back.
He slapped her. Francois, shocked, reached for the phone to call the police. The man tackled her, punching her face and body. She managed to escape from the apartment, running into the hallway. Eventually, the doorman returned to the apartment, battered and bleeding, collected her possessions before leaving. She never returned.
DWU provided Francois with a lawyer and she is currently suing the family for damages and unpaid overtime wages. Her employer denies he assaulted her, insisting that Francois attacked him.
More than a year later and 150 miles away, Francois is among those 11 women at the Liberty Cafe, off the main concourse of the statehouse in Albany, prepping to lobby for the bill's passage.
Nastaran Mohit, DWU's legislative director, sits across from Francois at the small, four-person table, organizing informational packets about the bill to provide to senators.
"They're probably just going to throw these away," Mohit says, shaking her head.
"What happened to positive thinking?" I ask. "No more positive thinking for these folks," she replies. "We've given them enough of that!"
The frustration is real among those pushing for the bill's passage. There was a major lobby day for the bill on February 9, when DWU and other organizations managed to fill three coach buses with domestic workers, their family members and advocates. That effort pushed lawmakers to vote the bill out of the final necessary committee later that month. The April effort, significantly smaller, has two goals: shoring up wavering senators, mostly Republicans, and convincing the Democratic leadership to bring the bill to a final vote by the full senate. Supporters of the bill have never been this close to seeing it passed, but time is running out. The legislature's session ends in the early summer.
If the bill isn't passed by both the senate and assembly and signed by the governor before then, its advocates will have to start all over again next January with a new legislature. The road could be even more difficult if Republicans manage to retake control of the senate. Democrats, who are much more amenable to the bill, currently hold a one-seat majority.
The group from DWU breaks into three teams, each assigned to meet with four senators. I accompany three women, all middle-aged, all of Caribbean extraction and all professional nannies.
One of them, Dolores Wright is our team leader. She does most of the talking when we meet with Kaitlyn MacLeod, the legislative aide to Republican Sen. Vincent Leibell. McLeod explains that the senator hadn't expressed any reservations about the bill but that, as a policy, he doesn't make decisions on voting for final passage of bills until the bill is on what's known as the "active list." It's a non-answer answer and all that these women are going to get.
After leaving the senator's office, Wright and I sit down on a bench across from the gold-colored elevator doors. The other two women were upset because the senator did not meet with them personally, especially considering how many of them had taken time off work to come to Albany. "Not good," Wright responds when I ask how she thought the meeting went. "We didn't see the man."
As we sit, I use this as an opportunity to learn more about Wright, who describes the lawyer, "a spiteful pig." "I've been a nanny for 20 years and that's the worst employer I've ever had," she recalls. She says the man installed hidden cameras to watch her, accused her of stealing food and expected her to work overtime hours for regular pay.
Almost every domestic worker you speak with will tell you some story about how she was wronged by an uncaring employer. But for every deliberately cruel employer, there is a person — usually a young mother — who is trying to do the right thing but often hasn't yet figured out quite how.
The Need for Standards
That's certainly the case for Gayle Kirshenbaum, a member of a group called Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. She recounted the difficulty she had to come up with something as simple as an acceptable hourly rate for her nanny. "I felt like I had no guidance. There were no standards," she said. "You'd ask another mother pushing her carriage on the street, 'What do you pay your nanny?'"
As Kirshenbaum asked around, she realized just how variable the conditions of domestic employment were. Depending on the awareness, generosity and even energy of the employer, things such as pay, raises and vacation time was determined in vastly different ways.
As Gonzalez explains, "You can have two apartments, side by side, and in one apartment, the worker has all of these benefits and gets treated really well and next door, you could have someone working for 50 cents an hour. Gonzalez says who's heard of employees paid as low as $125 a month. That's what having no standards creates," she adds. "Anything goes."
Thus, supporters of the domestic workers bill of rights champion its standardization of practices not only as attractive to domestic workers but for responsible employers, too.
"If there was a bill of rights, it would absolutely alleviate the anxiety of a lot of employers who actually do want to do the right thing," Kirshenbaum says. "Without it, there are months that can turn into years of unspoken resentments — anxiety that never gets expressed or comes out in the wrong ways." That anxiety can sometimes be put to good use.
Coming To America
"Everybody thought I was crazy. Maybe I was," says Nandi Keyi, reflecting on her decision to leave her family, friends and ample work opportunities in Canada and head to New York City.
Her story began with a one-way Greyhound bus ticket from Toronto and has brought her, 11 years later, to this 14th Street Dunkin' Donuts. Keyi describes herself as a writer, journalist and playwright. She was also, for nearly two years, a domestic worker, caring for other people's children on both sides of Central Park.
Born in London to Trinidadian parents who sent her to live with relatives on the island when she was five, Keyi migrated to Toronto at 16, finished high school and enrolled in York University, a large and well-regarded four-year school, in 1987.
While at York, she says she became involved in the activism sweeping the school in the late 1980s, organizing forums and demonstrations. "I ended up getting so caught up in everything that I stopped going to classes and that was a big pitfall," she explains as to why she failed to complete her bachelor's degree in journalism. She also held full-time positions and in 1998, gave birth to a daughter she named Kenya.
A year later, in 1999, Keyi says a sense of unease nagged at her. "I don't know what it was. After a while, I started feeling really stagnant. Also, not finishing that degree really bothered me. At the time, having the baby, I was feeling even more hopeless that I would ever be able to finish it." She decided she would head to New York.
She started school at CUNY's Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, majoring in literature. Comparing her experience in New York to her time at York, she said, "I sure wasn't getting into any campus politics," she laughs. "I wasn't getting distracted again."
A major tuition hike at CUNY hit foreign students hardest and Keyi saw her tuition rise from $3,400 to $7,600. She realized she needed to get a full-time job. A friend told her that she found a job babysitting on the Internet. So, Keyi replied to some listings on Craigslist and experienced what is for many domestic workers is the stressful and confusing experience of searching for a job.
Displeased with the offers she received, Keyi posted an ad of her own, laying out her qualifications and skills. Like many domestic workers, Keyi readily admits she fabricated parts of her resume to make it appear she was more experienced in childcare than she already was.
She got good responses and took a job caring for the young son of a Harvard professor on sabbatical who was living on the Upper East Side. Keyi says the professor's wife, who came from a very poor background, wrestled with her role as employer.
Keyi relates one particularly telling incident when the wife returned to her apartment from an errand. "She looked at me and she said, 'You know, I was in a park and I saw all of these black women with these little blonde-haired babies and that got me so angry and then I remembered you back here with my little blonde-haired baby,'" Keyi recalls.
An Awkward Relationship for both sides
Kirshenbaum was talking about this very issue, how often heads of household experience unease with being in positions of authority. She recalled her own somewhat different struggle to adapt when she hired her first nanny to look after her son in 2001. Arriving home one day, Kirshenbaum overheard the nanny telling someone on the phone that "my boss just walked in."
"I thought to myself, 'You think of me as your boss?'"
For someone who had long considered herself a progressive woman, accepting the fact that she was, in fact, a boss, was revelatory. "I thought we were friends," she said.
So did Keyi's former employer. "She would call me her friend, actually," Keyi confirms. While Keyi describes the two of them as having a good "working relationship," she is adamant that no matter how genuinely friendly the woman may have been, they could not be friends for one overriding reason. "The relationship between the nanny and employer is one that is based on power and lack of power. You cannot be friends. You cannot," explains Keyi. By way of example, she describes the day she found herself chaperoning the woman's son on a play date with a child from the Upper West Side. The child's nanny was an old hand at the job and had an impeccable reputation. All the employers knew her and would greet her on the streets.
"I used to think, 'How the hell does she get along so well with these people? How does she like this job so much?'" Keyi recalls. As her employer's son and the other child ran off to play, Keyi was left alone with the other nanny. She turned to Keyi and sighed. "I am so fed up with these people," she announced and then proceeded to lay into her current employers for the next several minutes.
Keyi was shocked. "She was held up as the epitome — the perfect baby sitter who absolutely loved what she was doing," Keyi said. "And here she was going off like you wouldn't believe."
A Diabolical Relationship
After six months, the professor's sabbatical came to an end, the family returned to Cambridge and Keyi was out looking for work again. She found it shortly thereafter with a family on the Upper West Side, a couple of high-powered media executives. They worked long hours, leaving Keyi working long hours with their two boys, ages six and four.
After about a year of work, during which time Keyi says she did not take a single vacation, she asked her employer, for a week off. When the employer refused, Keyi, fed up, simply took the week off without permission.
When Keyi returned from her vacation, she called her employer who was, to Keyi's surprise, in tears. She begged Keyi to return to work but told her, "I just need to know that my kids are going to be safe with you," explaining that she was worried that if Keyi could take a week off without permission, she might simply abandon her children at a park. Keyi could tell the concern was genuine.
The idea that someone would take her actions as indicative that she might cause harm to the woman's children shocked Keyi but, looking back, she understands it as part of what she calls the "diabolical relationship" that employer and domestic worker share.
"These women don't know who they're hiring. You don't know if I like you or if I don't like you," Keyi explains. You don't know if I like your kids or I don't like your kids. You must know that I don't like my job."
Keyi believes the incident caused the woman to realize in what a potentially dangerous situation she had placed her children. As it happened, neither of Keyi's employers had even bothered to ask for proof of identification. "You don't have my kids. I've got your kids. You've got to have this inordinate trust that's simply not based on anything," says Keyi. "And it comes out in situations like that."
Another incident brought the nature of the relationship home to Keyi. She stepped on a nail while packing the dishwasher. Keyi got a tetanus shot and when she called the next day, Keyi was shocked by her employer's first question: He wanted to know if she was going to sue the family. Keyi responded with an incredulous laugh. This power imbalance and the resentment and lack of trust it generates lies at the heart of the "diabolical relationship."
Kirshenbaum agrees, confirming the feeling is similar on the employer side. When following online discussions of fellow employers, she would discern a defensiveness in their attitudes toward their employees — "a sense of us and them."
"You don't want to let them get over on you. You want to make sure that they are doing the right job," Kirshenbaum recalls. While there was a great deal of discussion about what their employees were doing wrong, employers rarely discussed substantive issues, such as pay.
"People are very private about their budgets and how they manage their affairs so there were these big gaps in conversations," Kirshenbaum says. However, one of the few practices that seemed to be nearly universal was a tendency of employers to provide almost no warning time to employees when they were going to go off on vacation for a few days. They often had no plans to pay those employees during those off-periods nor to give them time to find temporary alternative work to fill the gap. "There's a complete cluelessness about their role [as employers] in the lives of these workers," Kirshenbaum says.
Over the course of the two years, Kirshenbaum grew close to her child's nanny and they began discussing some of the things that bothered each of them about the relationship between employer and domestic worker.
For example, some of the nanny's previous employers didn't even know the names or ages of her own children, as if she had no life outside of her employer's family. It's no wonder that those employers saw nothing wrong in asking her to stay late at work without prior notice, says Kirshenbaum. "That hurt her."
Julien, the DWU board member, says this lack of respect for time is one of the most frequent abuses that domestic workers endure. "They figure our time means nothing to us. We can be told at five o'clock that we're working until nine o'clock without notice. [Often], we're not compensated with time back or with money," says Julien, who has been asked to work late herself without extra pay.
An Experience Fraught With Nervousness—For Both Sides
Kirshenbaum may not be typical in the sensitivity she showed from the outset in her interactions with the nanny, starting with the first interview. Insecure about her own parenting — she couldn't convince her child to take a bottle — she worried about what the nanny would think of her. "I was worried that she would judge me," says Kirshenbaum, who fretted about whether the prospective hire would like her, her husband and her newborn son. She hoped they would share child-rearing values, from limiting television time to letting a baby cry. It was, says Kirshenbaum, "an experience fraught with nervousness."
Later, the nanny would tell Kirshenbaum that she, too, felt uncomfortable at the interview, though for different reasons. According to Kirshenbaum, she felt that she didn't have the right to inquire about any terms of her employment beyond pay. She was concerned about appearing too demanding. She wanted Kirshenbaum to like her and acted accordingly.
Kirshenbaum unwittingly encouraged what she now sees as a common trap. "I said something to the effect of, 'The rest [of the issues other than pay], we'll get around to it [later],'" Kirshenbaum says, laughing at her naïveté. Kirshenbaum says she imagined that if the nanny had additional concerns, she would have raised them during the interview, unaware of just how vulnerable this prospective hire felt.
Susan Fox, co-founder of the group Park Slope Parents, says she urges members of her group to spell out issues of pay, benefits and working conditions in a written contract to avoid problems later on.
"[Parents will say], 'We hired our nanny and talked about giving an increase [in pay] after six months but after three months [the nanny] asked for a raise . . .' and my first response is, 'Do you have a nanny contract? If you would have spelled these things out then they would have understood and you would have understood and you would have that document to point to," says Fox, who estimates that more than half of the questions that are posted to the group's listserv would be easily solved if the parties had drawn up a contract at the start of employment.
Julien, whose jobs have generally lasted four to five years, credits honest communication for the stable and mostly positive work experiences she has had. When I propose that she seems to have been lucky or fortunate in stumbling into such conditions, she is quick to correct me. "A lot of it is saying upfront what I expect from the families and also for families telling me what they expect as well. It's really about creating that clear line of communication." At the outset, she always brings up expectations for pay, hours and vacation time and that most employers are not put off by her directness. When they are, she is wary.
"Doing this job for so long, I know what abuse sounds like and I know what abuse looks like," Julien says.
Keyi remembers the day she realized she had to quit. It was a Friday. She was walking to her aunt's home, where she was living at the time. As she walked out of Utica Station and down the block, she was so exhausted she could barely keep her eyes open. When she finally arrived and walked into the apartment, her aunt's daughters — her nieces, confronted her, along with Kenya.
"They ran around me and shouted, 'Auntie! Auntie! Auntie!' and they meet me at the door and I screamed, 'Get away from me! Get away from me!' I could not deal with them." Keyi asked her aunt to take the kids away and she proceeded to sleep. When she awoke the next day's afternoon, she realized the job of taking care of other people's children was damaging her relationship with her own family.
"When your baby daughter meets you by the door and you say, 'Get away from me,' something is really wrong," Keyi says. She gave the family her two-week notice.
Lack of respect for the personal lives of domestic workers is prevalent throughout the industry, says Julien. "It's all about me, the employer. Your kids at home don't matter. Your laundry doesn't matter. A date with your husband doesn't matter."
While women like Julien and Francois turned to activism, Keyi took another path after her employment ended. Encouraged by her British literature professor at Medgar Evers, she employed her skills as a storyteller to write a book.
Though uncertain where the scenes borne of her experience would take her, she began sketching them out. By 2008, she felt she had the experience and critical distance to write the novel. When she started out, still stung by her negative experiences, her plot centered on nice babysitters and wicked employers.
"But guess what? The characters took over. They decided what their stories were," Keyi says. What resulted was a more honest telling of the story. The employers — whom Keyi originally intended to portray in a highly negative light — turned out to be "people just trying to make a living, just trying to get help with their kids. Do they always do it in the right way? No. Do they always respect the nannies? No. But they're not bad people. The nannies — they're not Mary Poppins. And that's life."
Keyi called her self-published book, The True Nanny Diaries, in part as a response to the publication of Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus's The Nanny Diaries, which Keyi saw as portraying an experience that in no way squared with her own.
"It's different to be a young, white student babysitting to make a couple extra bucks than it is to be an older, black woman — possibly undocumented — who has to do it," Keyi explains.
She hopes more nannies — with stories she knows can be very different from hers — find ways to tell their own, unique stories to build a more realistic view of what it is like to be a modern domestic worker in New York City.
While the book is fictional, some of the stories and characters are partly based on real incidents and amalgamations of real people. Of the protagonist, Keyi admits, "There's a lot of me in her and that scares me because she's not very nice."
Like Keyi, the protagonist is in a state of slight denial about her role as a domestic worker. This is a common issue for domestic workers in America. Keyi's friend is a housecleaner at the Watergate Apartments in Washington, D.C. But as far as her friends back in Caribbean know, she works as an official at the Pentagon. This is what Keyi refers to as "the decline." This is the gradual lowering of one's expectations upon the realization of how few options many recent immigrants have employment-wise.
Says Julien, "It's almost like it's set up that way — coming into the U.S. undocumented, being a woman of color, that's the area of work you're directed into." She has been in the domestic worker industry since she came to the United States in 1991.
Keyi says reactions to her book have been mixed. Some nannies who have read it have complained about a portrayal of their co-workers they view as too harsh. Other domestic workers have thanked Keyi for the unvarnished telling of their stories.
"It's a human story. It's about how we relate to each other as people, and really that's what the domestic workers rights movement is about," Keyi explains.
"What do we want?" she asks rhetorically. "Higher wages? Yes. Payment for all hours worked? Yes. But really, we want respect and respect is not measured in money. It's the relationship that we share as people and that is fundamentally what people respond to in terms of the book."
For Employers, a Tough Conversation
Unlike Keyi, Kirshenbaum never had the experience of being a domestic worker.
As a progressive Jew, Kirshenbaum had been involved off-and-on with JFREJ. When she heard about the organization's alliance with DWU, she signed up. As she learned more about the issues affecting domestics, she came to a sobering conclusion. "If I, as a fairly informed and progressive thinker, could be that self-absorbed, [then] there's probably not a lot of thought going on out there [among employers generally]." And so she threw herself into the campaign.
For over two years, Kirshenbaum would ascend the bima at local synagogues, sometimes accompanied by a domestic worker from DWU, and exhort the audience to imagine what it is to be a domestic worker walking into their home for a day.
Kirshenbaum's tactic was to relate the struggles of Caribbean domestic workers to those of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century. "What I've been asking the congregants to do is to take off that hat of employer and re-inhabit this memory of having been part of a struggling immigrant class," Kirshenbaum explains. She admits that for some members of the employing class, this is a difficult leap to make and that is reflected in the mixed reactions she has received from audiences.
At one synagogue, a 90-some year-old woman approached Kirshenbaum and thanked her for talking about the issue. As it turned out, the woman had been a domestic worker herself over half a century earlier. On the other hand, it's been difficult to move people to become proactively involved in the campaign. "Sometimes when we've tried to do deeper organizing and to get people to take the next step and come to house meetings to talk about it, there's been resistance," says Kirshenbaum.
She recalls the first speech she gave on the topic. The scene was the Garfield Temple, a reform synagogue located just west of Prospect Park, Brooklyn. It was part of a presentation in honor of Labor Day, 2004.
Though Kirshenbaum, through her previous work with JFREJ on other issues, was already an experienced public speaker, she found herself uncharacteristically nervous about the assignment. "I didn't know how I'd be received — if people would feel comfortable at all with the topic." Adding more stress to an already stressful situation, her nanny came along to hear her speak.
Kirshenbaum characterizes the employer-domestic worker relationship as among the most private and yet here she was, preparing to speak frankly before 60 men and women, about hers. The speech was received well and for the next two to three years, Kirshenbaum gave such sermons at area synagogues. "I was on the circuit," she says.
Though no longer involved in the day-to-day work of the campaign, Kirshenbaum stays involved on an irregular basis and is confident the bill will eventually pass. When this will happen, of course, is less clear.
For all the work that DWU, JFREJ and other groups have put into the campaign, the fact remains that six years since the bill was introduced, it still was in struggle.
The problem all these years, Kirshenbaum says, was that too few legislators believe their constituents care passionately about the issue. Kirshenbaum estimates that over the years, several hundred employers actively worked for bill's passage. To put that in perspective, there are over 200,000 employer households in New York City. "There haven't been hundreds of thousands of employers marching on Albany," Kirshenbaum says. "It's not like scores of employers are breaking down the office doors of legislators."
Keyi agrees. "For many people, it is just not a priority," she says, drawing a comparison between the reaction of legislators to the bill and to the proposed elimination of free student metro cards. "[The MTA] announced that and there was such an uproar, they held meetings and public discussions. How are [legislators] going to explain to their constituents how they could support a plan like that? It affects so many people. This bill doesn't," argues Keyi.
Another problem, as Keyi sees it, is a lack of dedication among domestic workers themselves. "Momentum needs bodies," Keyi says, "and I don't get the sense there are many people outwardly willing to do the hard work that's required."
She is critical of those domestic workers who she feels engage with DWU only when they are wronged personally and seek the support of the group. "DWU should be looked upon as a professional body, just as there are professional bodies in many other industries," with membership in the organization a granted for any domestic worker, Keyi says. "The organization cares about domestic workers and domestic workers need to care about the organization."
She says she was surprised and disappointed by how few of the people who showed up at an earlier lobby day in February were actual domestic workers, as opposed to outside activists. "That to me," she says, "was stupefying."
Organizers of the lobby days point out that it is difficult for many domestic workers to take a day off, living as they are paycheck to paycheck.
Despite the slow going, Kirshenbaum is hopeful about the eventual odds for passage. She vividly remembers a meeting with Senate President Malcolm Smith in his office. There were union representatives, domestic worker groups, activists from distant parts of the country, employer groups from the city and others.
"[Legislators] want to see that kind of breadth to begin to feel like it's something to pay attention to and that's taken time to build," she says, adding that she believes that some of the state legislators who represent areas with high employer density are "a bit nervous" about backing the bill.
More importantly, Kirshenbaum and others says the question of fairness and special treatment has been raised at meetings. "It seems that [some legislators] just haven't understood they need to legislate on this," says Gonzalez, the DWU's executive director.
Gonzalez dismisses the notion that this bill provides special protection for one industry as wrong on two counts. First, she argues that domestic workers have traditionally been excluded from most labor laws. Second, since it is impossible to organize a workplace of one, domestic workers do not have the same opportunity to bargain collectively over wages, benefits and working conditions as others. "It's not like we're asking more than anybody else gets," says Gonzalez. "This bill equalizes rights."
Ultimately, all advocates I spoke with believe the greatest support comes from those who have a personal connection with a domestic worker, whether on the employee or employer side of the relationship.
When meeting with a skeptical Republican state senator, Kirshenbaum mentioned that many legislators most likely had domestic workers themselves. The senator replied that he had in fact had to hire a home health care aide for his ailing mother.
"We sort of had to out him on the fact that he and his family had relied heavily on the labor of a domestic worker," Kirshenbaum explains.
And while speaking before a synagogue's congregation or with a state senator may be difficult, it's quite another task to speak frankly with friends and neighbors about their own treatment of their domestic employees. When I ask Kirshenbaum about how such conversations have gone with her personally, she tenses up. "It's been awkward and tense some of the time," she says.
When I press her for more details, she thinks about it, starts to speak once, twice, thrice and then, after a pause, replies, "That's all I'm going to say."
Regardless of when and even if the bill is passed, domestic workers will continue to do what they have done since the beginning of time — care for the children, parents and homes of others.
Back in Albany, as the three women and I leave the office of another targeted senator. A woman carrying a baby walks past. They immediately start fawning over him like teenage girls — a powerful reminder that many of these women really do love children.
"They want you to walk the dog, clean the toilet. I'm not a dogwalker. I'm not a maid. I am a nanny," one says. When I mention that she sounds proud, she responds, "I am. I am a nanny and I am good at it."
Joe can be contacted at