Keep the Nanny Happy
Domestic help stands up for fair pay
By: Patty Fisher
Behind every super-successful two-career couple, there’s a person who makes it possible for them to work such long hours and still come home to a clean house, clean laundry, freshly scrubbed children and home-cooked meals.
Call her the maid, the nanny or the personal assistant. Whatever you call her, she belongs to one of most exploited professions in the country.
Even in expensive Silicon Valley, where folks think nothing of buying the latest gadgets and designer baby clothes, some domestic workers are paid less than minimum wage. They work nights and weekends without overtime. They have no benefits or job security.
Their employers wouldn’t think of hiring an office worker under those conditions. But there’s something about housework and child care that just doesn’t command respect.
“Domestic work is considered demeaning work because of the way our society has treated the mothers who did that work, the slaves who did that work, the recent immigrants who did that work,” said Jill Shenker, an organizer for the Women’s Collective with La Raza Centro Legal in San Francisco. “It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.”
Long hours, no overtime
Obviously, not all families exploit their nannies and housekeepers. Many offer good salaries and treat them like valued family members.
Yet according to a survey by the Data Center, an Oakland research group focusing on social justice issues, one in 10 Bay Area
domestic workers makes less than the $8 state minimum wage. Nearly half make less than $15 an hour, and 90 percent work overtime without additional compensation.
Even the law discriminates against domestics, permitting longer work weeks for live-in maids.
Organizers across the country like Shenker are trying to change those long-standing attitudes.
Last week the collective brought the movement to Atherton. Dozens of domestic workers and their supporters arrived by bus from throughout the Bay Area. They marched along quiet Isabella Avenue and staged a protest outside the $17 million home of Sakhawat and Roomy Khan.
The Khans are being sued in federal court by the live-in maid they fired after four years, Vilma Serralta. She claims she cleaned the Khans’ 9,300-square-foot house, cared for their daughter, cooked, served meals and worked nights and weekends — for about $250 a week. She is asking for more than $120,000 in back pay.
Elizabeth Tippett of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati represents the Khans. She said they deny the allegations.
Indignant and speaking up
One of the Atherton protesters was a 62-year-old domestic worker from El Salvador who asked me to call her Mrs. Sanchez. Though she’d never been involved in social activism before, Sanchez joined the Women’s Collective after her boss at a cleaning service made her work nights and weekends without overtime and then fired her when she demanded that he pay Social Security taxes.
“I am 100 percent indignant about what happened,” she told me through an interpreter. “We need to speak up for our rights.”
Christina Chung, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Employment Law Center, has taken Serralta’s case.
“Unfortunately, exploitation like this is typical,” she said.
I wouldn’t say such mistreatment is typical, but it’s all too common.
Which puzzles me. I’d think people would try hard to keep their household staff happy. Not only does the maid or the nanny make their lives run smoothly, but she also has access to all their special personal stuff like designer clothes and credit card bills — not to mention their kids.
A living wage seems a small price to pay for peace of mind.