Nannies on a Quest for Rights

At CASA of Maryland, Alexandra Santacruz, left, Herminia Servat and CASA's Doris Depaz push the organizing effort.
At CASA of Maryland, Alexandra Santacruz, left, Herminia Servat and CASA's Doris Depaz push the organizing effort. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

They'll change the diapers, wash the clothes and cook the dinner. But nannies want a little respect. They don't need "Nanny Diaries" luxuries. But a contract would do. So would minimum wage, paid vacation, sick leave and overtime pay. And notice before firing.

That's the message a group of nannies in the Washington region wants working parents, companies and local governments to hear.

"We don't mind the work -- we just want to be paid for it," said Janet Osorio, who became so fed up with the long hours and low pay working as a nanny that she now works for a cleaning company. "And the opportunity to have a life."

Yesterday, Osorio met with a handful of nannies at CASA of Maryland in Silver Spring to announce that nannies across the country are organizing. Not into unions -- federal labor law prohibits domestic workers from forming unions -- but into the National Alliance of Domestic Workers. And the first thing they want is a "Domestic Worker Bill of Rights."

Already, they have the support of three Montgomery County Council members. A similar push, but one that was tied to paying nannies a living wage, died last year. This time, the nannies want to be assured of at least minimum wage, $6.15 an hour, or $7.15 in the District. A similar "nanny bill" was passed in New York City a few years ago by another member of the alliance, which represents 200,000 nannies from 42 countries.

"They're not asking for anything extraordinary," Alexis De Simone of CASA said.

And the fact that they aren't, she said, highlights what in reality is a vast, unregulated and largely unknown nanny shadow industry in the United States. It's a world that includes workers, both legal and illegal, who have come from countries around the world, employers who both pay and do not pay taxes, and working conditions and pay scales that vary widely.

One doesn't have to venture far into the daily headlines for the evidence: Zoe Baird, Kimba Wood and Michael Huffington all had political careers derailed by hiring undocumented workers as nannies. Recently, Washington Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder was ordered by a court to pay his nanny more than $44,000 in unpaid overtime.

Nor must one go far to witness the need: Bulletin boards in parks, preschools and churches are crammed with help-wanted ads for nannies, as are the classifieds, listservs and the word-of-mouth network that matches friends of parents with friends of nannies.

Mothers have been working for decades, De Simone said -- indeed, economists say dual incomes are often necessary to maintain middle-class status -- but the work world hasn't changed. "No one wants to pay working families to pay for child care," she said. "So it falls on the backs of domestic workers."

Osorio and some of the other nannies yesterday had their own low-wage nanny horror stories to share. Speaking in Spanish, Alexandra Santacruz explained how she had worked as a nanny for members of a diplomatic family in Ecuador, then came with them to the United States. For two years, she said, she worked constantly, cooking, cleaning, taking care of the children, all for less than $300 a month. "They never let me leave," she said. "They said they didn't want 'bad people' to influence me."

Santacruz was "rescued" by CASA of Maryland workers, negotiated a settlement with her former employers and now runs her own licensed in-home day-care center.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which lumps nanny wages together with other child-care workers, found that of 1.3 million child-care jobs in 2004, workers were paid between $5.90 and $12.34 an hour, with a mean annual wage of about $17,000 a year.

A 2006 survey, done for the Montgomery council, of about 280 nannies in the county found that live-in nannies generally are paid $6.29 an hour and that a majority of live-out nannies received minimum wage or more. But the vast majority did not get overtime, 20 percent had paid vacations, 15 percent had paid sick days, 28 percent reported that money was deducted for Social Security taxes and fewer than 16 percent had health insurance.

The group is starting its push for a nanny bill in Montgomery, De Simone said, because of its progressive reputation. "For a lot of people, hiring a nanny is the first time that they become an employer," she said. "Even though they're well-meaning, they don't have the proper guidelines. We want to help them do the right thing."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company