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. …