The invisible world of domestic work: Report documents abuses
Domestic workers in the United States often work in tough conditions and for little pay, according to a new report.
November 27th, 2012
07:07 PM ET

The invisible world of domestic work: Report documents abuses

By Moni Basu, CNN

(CNN) - Anna worked seven days a week as a nanny for the family of a Fortune 500 company executive. She lived with them in their 5th Avenue apartment in Midtown Manhattan. Her day began at 6 when the children woke up and didn't end until 10 at night when she put them to bed and cleaned the kitchen.

She cooked meals, did laundry and tended to the children's needs. She slept on the floor in between their beds. She did not have a single day off in 15 months.

She was hired because of the child development skills she learned as a teacher in her native Philippines. Yet she earned just $1.27 an hour.

Anna's story, documented in a groundbreaking statistical report on U.S. domestic workers released Tuesday, is not uncommon. It said Anna was part of a system of invisible workers - mostly women, mostly minorities and increasingly immigrant - who enable many Americans to function in their own lives.

Nannies, house cleaners and caregivers play a central role in the U.S. economy, the report said, but hidden from public view, they are not compensated adequately and are often abused.

It found that low pay was a systemic problem in the domestic work industry - 23% of domestic workers are paid below the state minimum wage - and few receive any benefits such as health insurance or paid sick days. For live-in workers who are closest to their employers, the situation is worse - 67 % of them are paid below minimum wage.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, which guarantees minimum wage, overtime and sick and vacation pay, does not apply to domestic workers.

"Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work" documents serious and widespread mistreatment of domestic workers in the United States, said Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which helped conduct the research.

Poo said she found it devastating and painful that such a huge percentage of domestic workers make less than minimum wage.

"The upshot is that the workers that we have to take care of our families and homes don't earn enough," she said. "They work in extremely unpredictable and vulnerable conditions. And that's not good for anyone."

Domestic work in America carries the legacy of slavery with its divisions of labor along lines of race and gender, the report said.

The problems also stem from a history of women's work being devalued, said the report's co-author Nik Theodore, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"It's often not regarded as work," he said.

It's not far-fetched to liken some situations to modern-day slavery where workers are isolated in people's homes, coerced into back-breaking labor, Theodore said.

"Working behind closed doors, beyond the reach of personnel policies, and often without employment contracts, they are subject to the whims of their employers," the report said. "Domestic workers often face issues in their work environment alone, without the benefit of co-workers who could lend a sympathetic ear.

What distinguishes domestic workers from others is their personal relationship with their employers, making the abuses all the more baffling, the report said.

Hailed as the first of its kind, the survey was based on interviews with 2,086 domestic workers from 71 countries in 14 metropolitan areas across the United States. It was funded by the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Foundations and the Alexander Soros Foundation.

Poo said now that the data is finally available, policy changes need to happen.

The number of domestic workers in the United States increased in the past few years to 726,437, according to the U.S. Census, though Tuesday's report suggested that number was far higher since the Census Bureau does not take into account workers placed by agencies or those who work for private cleaning companies such as Merry Maids. Undocumented workers are also probably undercounted in the census.

"Both U.S.-born and immigrant domestic workers, predominately women of color, work in an array of circumstances," the report said.

"A few staff the homes of the terrifically wealthy, serving the 1% in homegrown, contemporary versions of 'Upstairs/Downstairs' and 'Downton Abbey.' Many, many more work in the homes of busy, middle-class professionals who have sufficient income and wealth to hire help to do the chores that would otherwise consume their limited time."

Others assist people of lesser incomes, stopping in to clean or help an elderly person with chores.

But many domestic workers struggle to take care of their own families, the report said. It found that 60% of domestic workers in America spend more than half their income on rent or mortgage payments; 20% said there were times in the month before they were interviewed that there was no food to eat in their homes.

Live-in workers earned less than those who did not, the report said.  Live-in nannies earned a median wage of $6.76 an hour compared with $11.55 for those who lived elsewhere. Live-in caregivers made $7.69 an hour while others made $10.

The survey found that 65% of domestic workers have no health insurance, and less than 9% work for employers who pay into Social Security.

The report recommends policies that rectify the exclusion of domestic workers from employment and labor laws. Theodore said nannies, house cleaners and caregivers ought to earn minimum wage and be offered benefits. And they deserve a safe and healthy working environment.

Theodore, who co-wrote the report with Linda Burnham of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said even he was surprised at the depth and breadth of abuse of domestic workers. He interviewed Anna, who since then has left her employer, and spoke with many others in her situation. One woman even told him her employer pulled a knife on her.

It's the kind of thing you hear about in other nations but few think of this kind of thing happening in America.

It raises questions about immigration and the economy, Theodore said. "It speaks to how we as a society are going to care for our children and elderly."

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Filed under: Discrimination • Economy • How we live • Immigration • Poverty • Women
soundoff (497 Responses)
  1. Richard

    It's really sad but, is real the abuse, of the housekeepers, janitors, nannies etc. Hospitals stress the cleaning crew to the point of depression.....see it in first hand. Hope we understand that the work force is also humans beings that needs to be treated with respect and dignity.

    December 7, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
  2. sandra

    I'd like to know the country of origin for the employers? Purely anecdotal, but when I read these stories the employers are American citizens, but come from countries where indentured slavery is common. Good argument for deportation . . . of the employers.

    December 2, 2012 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Dan

    I worked full time, min wage for a year, and had to pull food out of dumpsters to avoid losing any more weight. By not mentioning the value of room and board, this article is being dishonest. Giving some numbers and not others, it shows how statistics can be used to manipulate public opinion. The journalistic standards here are obviously higher than Fox "News", but in some ways their manipulation is just more subtle.

    December 2, 2012 at 10:20 am | Report abuse |
  4. Nancy

    Really, David???? Would you work a 16 hour day for that amount? Or is just women of color for whom this is a great deal?

    December 2, 2012 at 8:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Dan

      As a man of whiteness, I would take living in a nice house with all my bills paid plus $2/hr in a heartbeat. Any offers?
      Are we actually advocating taking away opportunities that people gratefully seize, because we've decided those opportunities aren't good enough for them? How arrogant. Next we can go after the restaurant industry, because $2/hr (plus tips often equaling $20-30/hr) isn't good enough for you, and therefore shouldn't be good enough for anyone.

      December 2, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
      • Sue

        Legally you can't claim the amount of room and board AND only make $2. It doesn't work that way. What is different is that live in help have different laws regarding over time.

        Domestics do fall under FLSA, that was wrongfully reported. The difference is there's no oversight in this industry. Even undocumented workers can file for wrongful wage compensation. What's worse is that even worse is that it's widespread. Governor Brown recently vetoed a bill that would have given domestics in CA more oversight because the state would have to pay in home care workers for the elderly over time. This is a case of big business dictating moral and ethical terms of employment.

        December 3, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
      • AntiCEO

        As stated previously, full-time domestic help does still fall under FLSA and must be paid minimum wage and I believe overtime.

        "Casual" babysitters, e.g. the kid next door, do not.

        December 3, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Carlotta DuPree

    We pay our PA $24.00/hr, housekeeper $20/hr, and house manager $30/hour.
    Thieves will always be thieves as apparently some of these employers are!

    December 2, 2012 at 5:04 am | Report abuse |
    • IH

      "For live-in workers who are closest to their employers, the situation is worse – 67 % of them are paid below minimum wage."
      No the article is a twist of statistics. It includes employers who include full housing, full board (food 24/7), and other expenses outside the hourly, eg partial tuition, health insurance etc. We gave full board, full housing, we paid the SS, unemployment, and all taxes based on an the full pay value of about $20/hour. Our Nanny got a check of $350/month, but she had full use of a car, never had to pay a nickel for food, gas, rent, her own taxes or health care. The actual pay value to her was $18/hour whcih is more than many skilled workers get with no health care.

      December 2, 2012 at 8:02 am | Report abuse |
      • oldnavyht3

        did she have children livign in the house with you? did she have another home to take care of withthat $350 a month?

        December 2, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Froman

    If you can't do the job yourself, and you coerce someone to do it for you at less than subsistence wages, you want to have a slave...

    December 2, 2012 at 3:18 am | Report abuse |
    • Howard

      Agreed, and what's worse is that the law sanctions this form of indentured servitude. Funny thing; the people who pass those laws are also the ones most likely to employ domestics.

      December 2, 2012 at 4:58 am | Report abuse |
    • dan

      I was born in this country, and typically make $12-$13/hr. I would take room and board in the kind of house where they have servants plus $2/hr in a heartbeat. These people live far better than most minimum wage workers.

      December 2, 2012 at 9:59 am | Report abuse |
      • angryamerican007

        LMAO, "as a man of whiteness"", what the hell else would YOU be expected to say. To you I say Prove it! you talk the talk but can't walk the walk. It's easy for you to say because I'd bet that you are one of the employers or were raised by servants. As a man of whiteness,LMAO, I know to expect you to lie!

        December 7, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Boro

    Based on most comments, people are assuming that nannies who work for 1.27 an hour are illegal. that's not true. I know nannies that are from different countries that are legal who would work for that and the reason is that they don't know what other job they can do. forget about agencies, working at Walmart or any low job. They won't do it. For them there is no other job period.

    December 2, 2012 at 3:10 am | Report abuse |
  8. LOST

    Not everyone is without a choice or a voice. No matter how young or old you are, rich or poor, no matter now stuck or defenseless you believe yourself to be...there is always a way out.

    December 2, 2012 at 3:07 am | Report abuse |
    • Howard

      Do you realize you are attempting to justify this kind of employment where people work extremely long hours without minimum wage, overtime, or benefits? Are you really that inhumane?

      December 2, 2012 at 5:00 am | Report abuse |
  9. Charlie

    My family is originally from the Philippines and we also had nannies growing up. But when we came to America, only my sister and her husband could afford a live-in nanny. She was with them for 10 years when their son was just born. The nanny, although only making $1000 a month, was treated very well. She had her own bedroom and she didn't have to cook daily since the family ate out often. She was considered part of the family. When she retired and went back to the Philippines, we had a nice dinner for her and gave her lots of things to take home to her family. I guess my point is, not everyone who employ nannies are cruel and heartless like the one in the article. I'd like to think this story is an exception rather than the norm.

    December 2, 2012 at 2:00 am | Report abuse |
    • AntiCEO

      Lemme guess. She was working here illegally, for less than minimum wage, and you didn't pay her social security taxes. But she got a nice dinner!

      December 2, 2012 at 2:03 am | Report abuse |
      • Charlie

        Actually, my sister is a partner of an accounting firm and her husband is a physician and believe it or not, they paid taxes! The nanny was a friend of my sister's MIL. The nanny's husband died shortly after they moved here from PI. He was one of those Filipino WWII veterans who qualified to immigrate to the US. You can assume all you want but like I've said, the nanny was treated very well. As a matter of fact, had it not been for my sister, she would have gone back to PI penniless.

        December 2, 2012 at 2:16 am | Report abuse |
      • AntiCEO

        If they paid $12,000 a month your good sister was most likely paying less than minimum wage.

        Still, better pay than back home.

        And after working exactly 10 years, your nanny now gets to spong off the rest of America by collecting social security for life. Nice how we all subsidize your good sister.

        December 2, 2012 at 2:23 am | Report abuse |
      • Charlie

        Sorry AntiCEO, I meant to hit reply but I inadvertently hit Report abuse!

        December 2, 2012 at 2:30 am | Report abuse |
      • Charlie

        Listen, obviously, no matter what I say about how fairly sister's nanny was treated, it looks like you'll come up with something negative to say. My point in telling the story is, not everyone is out there to gain the system or treat others badly. The nanny needed a place to live when her own relatives could no longer help her after her husband passed away. And, she gained a legitimate employment while she was here. And mind you, she had weekends off and only worked about 6 hours a day... And yes, I have a very good-hearted sister and I'm very proud of her.

        December 2, 2012 at 2:41 am | Report abuse |
      • AntiCEO

        Well I hope the nanny, after working 10 years for your good sister, isn't collecting social security paid for by the rest of us who have to work 40.

        December 2, 2012 at 2:48 am | Report abuse |
      • momzna

        AntiCEO, you obviously have a chip on your shoulder. If the nanny worked for 10 years and paid taxes, she earned her social security benefits, no matter where she lives now and how you feel about it.

        December 2, 2012 at 3:37 am | Report abuse |
      • AntiCEO

        Nope. What's going on is, she's getting a gold-plated pension care of you and me, while the good-sister employer is laughing over caviar at how little they had to pay her - since she knew that pension was coming.

        The woman was probably 55 when she arrived here, as her husband was in WWII. Work for $1,000 a month for 10 years, then go home and get a pension of near $1,000 a month for life, paid by hard-working Americans. That's a 100% pension that the rest of us have to pay for. Notice that the person posting this anecdote isn't staying mum about this detail, but its a common ripoff that every Filipino domestic worker knows about.

        But hey, if you can find a job that pays you a 100% pension after 10 years on the job, please tell the rest of us where it is.

        December 2, 2012 at 4:00 am | Report abuse |
      • grasshopper

        Wow, AntiCEO you're a real jerk aren't you? Something must have happened in your life to make you such a bitter and dislikable person. Do you really have any friends in real life?

        December 2, 2012 at 4:36 am | Report abuse |
      • mjg

        no one said she was illegal- you only get ss benefits based on what you pay in check the law and the nanny went back to to her home country- and a 1000 a month is not less then minium wage if she didn't work full time and room and board is taxable and ss must be paid as income.

        December 2, 2012 at 4:48 am | Report abuse |
    • mariam

      There is a lot of abuse of pay and time for sure. It is a very vulnerable position for immigrants. I have witnessed women abusing the workers because they were their sponsors for labor certification as well. The certification took a very long time (ten years) and these women became indentured slaves literally.

      December 2, 2012 at 2:23 am | Report abuse |
    • cathy

      Believe me, Over worked nannies and domistic workers are not the exception. The majority are over-worked and underpaid. These employers trust these nannies who often have to cook also for the household with their children 100 percent, but don't understand that their workers need time off to do an even better job. Nannies have to spend allot of time with children doing art work with them, playing with them, doing home work with them, yet often the employers turn a blind eye to them, because they do not want to give them a higher salary.

      December 2, 2012 at 3:02 am | Report abuse |
  10. Jason Royal Hart

    We'd like to request a citation on the statement that:

    The Fair Labor Standards Act, which guarantees minimum wage, overtime and sick and vacation pay, does not apply to domestic workers.

    According to research we've done, the FLSA does in theory apply to al domestic workers. Can you please provide verification as to whether this is true or not?

    Thank you.

    December 2, 2012 at 1:30 am | Report abuse |
    • momzna

      The website of the Department of Labor states that "Occupations such as babysitting are not subject to the minimum wage law."
      From the conscientious point of view, room and board should be counted as a part of compensation.

      December 2, 2012 at 4:03 am | Report abuse |
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