Many New Yorkers could not survive without their nannies - those child-loving, cradle-rocking, near members of the family. But now that relationship has another dimension added to it: demands for adequate pay and at least enough time off for the occasional movie.
After hearing horrible cases of nanny abuse, the New York City Council has passed the first legislation of its kind in the nation giving domestic workers rights, such as making them aware of labor laws regarding salary, benefits, and vacations.
The action here may presage a growing movement across America that readjusts the relationships between families and their live-in help. Groups in several major cities - including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. - are now pushing legislation similar to New York's. Thus the experiment here is being closely watched.
The new bill is expected to affect thousands of immigrants and minorities who often work long hours for less than minimum wage. It might also impact the quality of life for dual-income families that count on domestic workers to walk the dachshund, thaw dinners, and change diapers.
"They are taking care of our children and our houses," says Gale Brewer, the councilor who sponsored the legislation. "If the domestic workers went on strike, the whole city would shut down."
Under the legislation, employment agencies have to notify nannies and other live-in workers in writing about their responsibilities, wages, and expected hours. Families must sign an agreement that they are aware of the domestic workers' rights regarding minimum wage, overtime pay, and Social Security. Violations can bring a $1,000 fine and one-year prison sentence.
An estimated 600,000 domestic workers live in the New York City area. Most are immigrants, who are often not aware of labor laws or are scared to challenge employers out of fear of losing their jobs or visas.
But in the last several years, a number of high-profile cases have surfaced, such as one in Silver Spring, Md., where a couple were found guilty of enslaving a young woman from Cameroon. The year before a man in Gaithersburg, Md., received 6-1/2 years in prison for violating the rights of a Brazilian woman who worked in his home for 20 years.
Ms. Brewer became aware of the situation last year, when Domestic Workers United and a group of New York University Law School students approached her. Brewer worked with the group for months, drafting legislation and listening to the harrowing stories of many domestic workers.
One of those is Justina Dumpangol, a Maylasian native, who worked for a New York family 2-1/2 years ago. She tells a story of being pushed down basement stairs by a child she was caring for and left lying semiconscious until an ambulance was called.
"He locked the door behind me, and I was there for a very long time," says Ms. Dumpangol, who told her story to the City Council last week.
That moment marked the beginning of what the Malaysian native calls a period of "abuse, exploitation, and humiliation." When Dumpangol tried to complain about her working conditions to the agency that had placed her, she says she was told she was too old (59 at the time) to be choosy about her jobs.
Many domestic workers also put in long hours and earn well under minimum wage. That was the case with Carolyn de Leom, who worked as a nanny for eight years. Ms. Leom says she earned about $2 per hour and often put in 14 hour days, six days a week. Now, she's an organizer with Domestic Workers United, which is pushing for nanny rights.
Supporters say the legislation, by requiring the nanny and employer to sign a contract and granting more flexibility to domestic workers, should solve many abuse problems. "The best form of protection is being able to walk across the street and take another job," says Dan Griswold, a trade and immigration expert at the Cato Institute of Public Policy. "Without that, a single employer has an unhealthy amount of leverage."
Still, critics of the law - including some agencies that place domestic workers - don't believe new regulations are needed. They argue that bad experiences are rare in domestic work, and, when problems do occur, it's usually the result of unscrupulous agencies that aren't licensed.
"These are people who are working out of their garages and charging applicants fees," says Keith Greenhouse, owner of Household Staffing, a New York agency that places workers in domestic jobs. "Domestic workers are typically treated very well. The pay scale for this work is phenomenal."
Dumpangol, though, feels an element of vindication. "Today has been a great relief," she says of the Council vote. "If this keeps going, maybe no one will have to go through what I went through."