(MCT) — Do you employ a nanny? A housekeeper? A caregiver? Are you a good employer?
The nannies, housekeepers and caregivers among us are called domestic workers, meaning they earn their livings in the intimate settings of other people’s homes, scrubbing the toilets, changing the diapers, getting up in the middle of the night when Grandma or the baby cries for help.
Almost all of these workers are women. Most survive on low wages and no benefits, many in conditions that would be deemed intolerable, even illegal, in other jobs.
Those are some of the facts about domestic workers discussed in a report released last week in conjunction with the University of Illinois at Chicago.
But as I read the report — called “Home Economics: The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work” — I found myself thinking not just about the workers but about those of us who hire them. Reading the data on domestic workers should make anybody who employs one ask: What kind of employer am I?
How easy it is to wag a finger at a corporation, or at the Chinese, or at your own boss, for treating employees like widgets and slaves.
But when the employer is you, at home?
“It’s a touchy subject,” said Nik Theodore, a UIC professor who co-wrote the study. “It’s common to hear people complain about their domestic worker. But that’s a very one-sided story. In polite conversation, people are much less likely to talk about themselves as an employer.”
We’ve all seen the movies that caricature the employers of domestic workers: The wealthy mom who prefers Pilates to the kids. The wealthy dad who prefers golf. The power brokers with no time for anything but work and networking. The privileged people who talk of the help as “members of the family” while treating them barely better than the pets.
But it’s not only the rich who rely on help at home these days.
“Families are under a lot of stress,” Theodore said. “People are working long hours. There are a lot of caring responsibilities. Whether it’s the wealthy or people of more modest means, they’re turning to domestic help.”
Many people, however, can’t afford to pay good wages for the help they want or feel they need. At least that’s what they tell themselves. So they do what people do: They pay whatever they can get away with. A few statistics, based on the 2,086 workers surveyed for the report:
Almost a quarter of domestic workers are paid below the state minimum wage.
Sixty percent spend more than half of their income paying the rent or mortgage.
In the past year, well over a third suffered a work-related injury.
Theodore was especially startled by the lives of live-in domestic workers. He tells the story of a nanny he interviewed.
“She made just $1.27 an hour, working seven days a week,” he said. “She worked from 6 in the morning when the kids woke up, until 10 at night when she finished the kitchen. She hadn’t had a day off in 15 months.”
For a domestic worker, someone else’s home becomes the office.
“The home — our private space — becomes a workplace for another individual,” said Theodore. “That blurring of the boundary becomes confusing for people. Oftentimes employers behave very badly.”
The laws and policies that protect other workers often don’t apply to domestic workers.
Caregivers for the elderly don’t have to be paid minimum wage. Live-in workers are excluded from overtime protections. Domestic workers rarely have health insurance. Or guaranteed breaks. Or anything in writing.
They rarely get raises, even as their tasks and hours expand. They’re often abused verbally, sometimes physically. They work without the company or solidarity of colleagues.
And if they complain? They rarely do. They’re afraid they’ll be fired.
This kind of work — the isolated, supposedly menial tasks of taking care of others and a home — was once called women’s work. It’s still women’s work, only now it’s done by women — mostly women of color and mostly immigrants — who are struggling to keep their families afloat while keeping someone else’s afloat too.
Theodore wrote the report with Linda Burnham of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an organization that is fighting for laws to better protect the workers who take care of Grandma, the kids and the kitchen.
“What the Domestic Workers Alliance will say,” he said, “is, ‘Let’s get this straightened out. No judgment. Let’s just get this right.’”
It won’t get right immediately. Until it does, if you hire a caretaker, a nanny or a housecleaner, ask yourself: Am I a good employer?
Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
©2012 the Chicago Tribune