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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I hate reading how these rich people think they are entitled to a live in slave! I hope these creeps can be identified and the immigrants are given another shot at live. Free from the likes of these creeps.

December 14 2012 at 6:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Many years ago I was volunteering at my church's employment center helping people find jobs. A man called in looking for a housekeeper. The housekeeper would spend summers in La Jolla, CA, and winters in Palm Springs, CA. This man ended up being Hoagy Carmichael (the famous song writer, piano player and actor. Known for such songs as Buttermilk Skies, Georgia on My Mind, Up the Lazy River, Stardust and many more). I had just come off of 3 serious surgeries on my back and was told I'd never be able to work again, I was volunteering to show the doctor he was wrong. Hoagy and I hit it off so well he asked me to come over and meet his wife and get to know them over dinner. I went to La Jolla and met with them. Both he and Wanda were really sweet. They convinced me to come work for them and I did. Now I was blessed because they took me on trips and treated me like a queen, till they didn't. Hoagy was a big flirt but at the age of 82 (if I recall correctly) his health was beginning to fail partly because of all the Scotch he drank every day. His wife (the 2nd one) didn't like how close Hoagy and I were getting. He was like my grandfather and nothing more. Just a really dear man. I got ill with an extreme high temperature and a bad case of the flu. Wanda (wife #2) found a way to get me out of the house and in a cheap motel so "Hoagy wouldn't get ill".. yea right. But I say all this to say I met several domestic ladies where we lived that worked for the other houses and they were treated really badly at some, and very good at others. You should see what Frank Sinatra gave his housekeeper for Christmas,,,,, a sports car!!!! So IMHO it's like with everything else. It depends on who the employers are and I'll bet how much money they have and how long they've had it!

December 06 2012 at 4:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Hey now...

Thats disguisting...not the first time I have read a story like this. usually it's a wealthy family from another country that treats their help like slaves. Sadly these workers are being exploited taking advantage of because they are undocumented and just want to survive and thats wrong!
I have been in many heated disagreements with individuals over this type of non sense when discussing hiring help for my daycare I recall more than a few times someone telling me to hire an undocumented person to help me run my daycare and pay them 4 buck an hr...Wow thats ticks me off

December 06 2012 at 12:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The wealthy are the ones who say the poor want to live off govt. hand outs. These people should be making it on their own. Never mind the fact the're only payed less than a dollar an hour. This is akin to slavery!
This is the kind of thing that wars are started by. WERE DUE FOR A MAJOR CHANGE!

December 06 2012 at 12:24 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Christine S

They forgot to add that many of these women also have their passports held. So even if they DID want to leave, they couldn't.

December 06 2012 at 12:15 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

These situations will continue to occur because these people can be taken advantage of by the wealthy.

December 05 2012 at 10:00 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

These wealthy people hiring illegal aliens to be their housemaids and abuse them should be in jail. First it is a crime to harbor illegal aliens, then it is a crime to exploit and abuse illegal aliens, that is downright human trafficking.

December 05 2012 at 9:45 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The other thing that is extremely disturbing here is that many of you are commenting that they do not deserve jobs here. That may or may not be true but many of the jobs that these illegal workers are taking, they are getting because the people that are unemployed in our own country refuse, they feel they are above these types of jobs. It is a proven statistical fact. In addition, one of you complained that there is abuse in all workplaces, and that is correct, however, the rest of the world is often not held captive and working in fear of talking to someone else about that abuse. One of you commented that the rich women abuse because they are abused, I am here to tell you that is definitely incorrect they abuse because they get away with it. Many of you are venting on here and posting without even doing your research or having substantial documentation to back up your rants.

December 05 2012 at 4:59 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to Gayle's comment

I cannot believe the comments that I am reading on here. It should not matter if a worker is legal or illegal, what should matter is that NO human being should be subject to abuse, threats, horrible work conditions. It should not matter if they are living in a mansion, it is not their mansion and they are not living in that mansion without cost, and by that I mean a small area to live and eat in, no privacy, possible abuse and limited income. I do not condone illegal workers but by the same token some of the comments on here make me ill. Where is your compassion and kindess for another living human being??????

December 05 2012 at 4:52 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

If a person is in this country as an illegal immigrant' Ooooh exCUUUUUse me ~ an 'undocumented citizen' then yes.. It does make them a human being worthy of decent treatment, BUT second and foremost, they are a CRIMINAL not in compliance with the laws of our country. They are NOT paying taxes or contributing to the structure of our nation. Therefore, they should NOT be privvy to the protection or benefits of our nation ~ PERIOD.
What is so hard to understand about that? It's hard to call someone else out for being a criminal when you are living as one yourself.

December 05 2012 at 3:24 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to goldiloxroxtoo's comment

Even illegals deserve decent treatment and yes, they are "PRIVY" to protection. AND, there's no such thing as an "undocumented citizen". Try "undocumented immigrant" or "undocumented alien"

December 05 2012 at 7:09 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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