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Groups Seek To Improve Conditions of US Household Workers - 2002-06-12

Most American workers are protected by federal labor laws which require employers to pay a minimum wage of $5.15 an hour and overtime pay after 40 hours of work in a work-week, among other benefits. But domestic workers say they're working long hours for low pay and very little protection. A group in New York City working to change that.

Inside about two million houses and apartments across the United States, housekeepers and cooks are hard at work. They're covered by some but not all labor laws, as long as they are working here legally. But even with laws on the books, authorities say it's hard to enforce regulations inside private homes.

That lack of oversight is painfully clear to Carol de Leon, who came to the United States about 10 years ago when the American family she worked for in Hong Kong relocated. When she looked at her paycheck and did the math, she realized she was making about $2 an hour.

"I had to work from 6:30 in the morning," she said. "I had to be on my feet, waking up the children, making sure they're running, have breakfast and their clothes before they go to school, right? And then, once they leave, you have these household chores you have to tend, the laundry, the cleaning, the walking the dog, you name it, and shopping, and I am working from 6:30 to 8:00 in the evening, and most likely, 10:00 in the evening."

After her employers threatened to report her for immigration violations, she quit. She found another position as a nanny but says even there, she sees things aren't much different.

"I see it all around me that there are these women all over, and the conditions are so widespread," she said. That's when I realized that in this industry you are subjected to abuse and exploitation."

In the New York City region, where estimates suggest there are about half a million domestic workers, a coalition called Domestic Workers United is trying to change the situation. The group encourages the use of a standard employment contract, and is urging city officials to enforce existing labor laws. Erline Brown, a nanny for 17 years, says the campaign focuses on basic items like overtime and severance pay.

"We're just asking for the same terms and conditions that the people we work for do not take a job unless they get," she said. "So we're not asking for any special treatment."

Among the coalition's demands is a new law, requiring agencies that find jobs for nannies and other domestic workers to give new employers a written code of conduct. That document would outline their legal responsibilities such as paying the minimum wage and social security taxes. The agencies also would have to provide detailed job descriptions, explaining what duties the domestic worker is and is not required to perform.

New York City Councilwoman Gale Brewer says there's a lot of support for the bill, partly because it won't cost any money but also because there are many new faces on the City Council.

"There are many more immigrants reflecting the interests and background of many of the domestic workers," she emphasized. "There also are many African-Americans who are members of the City Council and whose parents or grandparents were domestic workers so there's a real personal interest in this bill."

Still, the city's leading nanny agencies complain the legislation unfairly targets them - when the real violators are the unlicensed and underground operations people use to hire household help. They've urged the city to crack down on the agencies that are not registered, employers who hire illegal immigrants, and anyone who operates by word of mouth and in cash only.

Councilwoman Brewer notes that closer scrutiny of the domestic worker industry as a whole should raise standards, and not penalize anyone who's playing by the rules.

"What we hope is more legitimate agencies will exist and more agencies will see the need to get a license and that will involve hopefully better working conditions for the workers and for the families who are employing the workers because everybody will know what their rights are," she said.

Already the word is getting out. At a Central Park playground, half of the nannies informally surveyed have heard of the Domestic Workers United campaign. Nanny Luz Burke says she's in the process of negotiating a contract with her current employer.

"So they are paying me more than $12 an hour and I am grateful for that," she said. "The girls, I hear, they are only receiving less than $10 an hour with a lot of responsibility."

Domestic Workers United intends to take the issue to the state level and beyond. One advocacy group from California visited the headquarters recently, and left with plans to launch a similar campaign in San Francisco.