Alanis Morissette nanny lawsuit opens door to broader debate

Alanis Morissette: Her former nanny has sued the singer and her husband for lack of overtime pay and shift breaks. The case of Alanis Morissette and her nanny highlights the precariously vital yet vulnerable position of caregivers.

Victoria Will/Invision/AP
Alanis Morissette faces a lawsuit filed by former nanny Bianca Cambeiro, who claims the singer and her husband refused to pay overtime and confined her to the nursery, according to reports from People magazine.

Singer/songwriter Alanis Morissette faces a lawsuit from a former nanny who alleges work abuses including long shifts without breaks and a lack of overtime pay. The former nanny, Bianca Cambeiro, is seeking $130,000 ($30,000 in unpaid wages and $100,000 in damages), according to the Daily Mail in London.

The Daily Mail story (ably illustrated by photos of Morissette in concert playing a sparkly gold guitar) lays out only the nanny's account of a grueling schedule: three to four overnight shifts a week (from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m.) confined to the baby's bedroom and the occasional seven-day stint without overtime.

This story is playing out in the media just days after California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that requires time-and-a-half overtime pay for domestic workers – including nannies, but excluding baby sitters. The bill's sponsor initially pushed for "a requirement for meal and rest breaks for housekeepers, nannies, and workers who care for the disabled and elderly, but those provisions eventually were dropped from his measure, AB241" according to the Associated Press story on the measure.

This is far from the first time that nanny-related controversy has walked into the limelight. Nannies have gotten headlines for everything from sexual harassment allegations (actor Rob Lowe), to "stealing" husbands (Ethan HawkeRobin Williams), and to ending political careers when allegations of employing illegal immigrants and/or underpaying nannies come to light (most famously during President Bill Clinton's "Nannygate" series of scandals).

At the core of all the drama: the job of nanny is a uniquely powerful and powerless position. Some nannies work with some of the richest and most powerful people in the country doing one of the most vital jobs imaginable: caring for children. But they are often treated worse than other domestics (such as maids) who typically enjoy some sort of regular schedule and regulated wages and benefits. The job has its perks – it's a rare opportunity to earn money (sometimes off the books) by doing something that can be fulfilling and rewarding (sometimes with little or no formal training), but those same perks make the position easy to undercompensate.

And the public discussion over nannies tends to circle back to the bedrock, hot-button issues of race and class. It's entirely typical for nannies to be immigrants (legal or otherwise) who may have less knowledge of American laws, or no standing to invoke them in their own defense. And nannies are typically women employed by women, meaning that any oppression touches upon issues of gender conflict – and that when public backlash targets their rich bosses, the person in the cross hairs of the media is most typically the children's mother, not their father.

At its worst, being a nanny can be surprisingly similar to slavery – read this CNN report about a nanny who worked for a Fortune 500 company executive from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. without a single day off in 15 months, earning $1.27 an hour. At its best, it can be a rewarding, fairly compensated career that comes with extraordinary benefits: the joy of raising and educating children and the pleasure of being part of a loving family.

The remarkable gulf between those two extremes – and the reliance on nannies by extremely busy, extremely wealthy, and sometimes extremely temperamental people – ensures that they won't leave the news entirely anytime in the near future, Governor Brown's law notwithstanding.

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