Law Reinforces Montgomery as a Nanny State

George L. Leventhal sponsored the nanny bill in Montgomery.
George L. Leventhal sponsored the nanny bill in Montgomery. (Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post)
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By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, July 22, 2008

From Marc Fisher's "Raw Fisher" blog:

Montgomery County, the government that brought you bans on trans fats, smoking and any sales of liquor except by the county's own stores, last week added a new kind of regulation, becoming probably the first place in the country to require residents who hire nannies to do so via a written contract.

The move has the usual do-gooder genesis, a reflection of the fact that many domestic workers are taken advantage of by employers. After all, since some nannies are illegal immigrants, it's easy for employers to set onerous working conditions and get away with substandard treatment of workers.

The County Council's unanimous passage of this bill -- which requires residents to provide live-in help with a separate room for sleeping and "reasonable access" to a bathroom, kitchen and laundry room -- is a tribute to the nannies who banded together to seek help from their government.

But while it's true that many nannies are poorly paid, get little or no health coverage and are required to work hours that wouldn't be allowed if they were covered by federal labor law (they are not), it's also true that conditions for domestic workers in Montgomery are considerably better than in many other places.

This is a classic MoCo decision to make law as a political statement rather than as a remedy to a burning social need. A study commissioned by the county to look into the plight of domestic workers actually found that a remarkable 87 percent of nannies ranked their employer in the top half of the ratings scale offered in the survey by George Washington University investigators.

Only 38 percent said they had health insurance, and 75 percent of live-in workers said they did not receive overtime pay. But in the world of nannies, Montgomery County is an unusually good workplace. Indeed, IRS figures show the county has the highest compliance rate with the federal nanny tax of any jurisdiction in the nation.

(This is perhaps the result of the secret wish harbored by all those lawyers in the county that they might someday be nominated to the Supreme Court, at which point their failure to have paid the nanny tax would be a most ignominious exit from possible glory.)

Earlier in the debate on this bill, the council was more divided. Council member Duchy Trachtenberg faced off against one of the bill's sponsors, George Leventhal, on WAMU's "Kojo Nnamdi Show," with Trachtenberg arguing that the nanny bill was well intentioned but useless. It would actually "dissuade people from employing people who don't have legal status" and would "jeopardize workers by bringing up their immigration status," she said.

The bill as passed doesn't mention immigration status. But Trachtenberg, who later came to support the measure, was right to have raised the concern: If the county wants to be supportive of illegal immigrants, or at least doesn't want to join Prince William County in overtly fighting their presence, then requiring residents to put into writing their relationship with illegal domestic workers is hardly a way to encourage a don't ask, don't tell approach.

More important, this latest expression of MoCo's nanny reflex is another case of overreach. Domestic workers were excluded from federal labor law for a reason; there ought to be in any society some less formal work relationships that enable newcomers and other strivers to shape their lives in ways that standard rules of employment might not allow.

Whether that means working odd hours, taking your children with you to work or arranging to live in a community you could otherwise never afford, there are benefits to domestic work. Obviously, any lack of regulation ought not give employers permission to abuse workers, but the proper remedy to those unfortunate situations is to quit and find other work. Maryland law protects domestic workers, including them in minimum wage and workers compensation provisions.

Some domestic workers are abused and fall well short of minimum wage, but that is an enforcement issue. Passing new laws that make it harder to hire domestic workers creates more problems than it solves. Once again, Montgomery County acts as a world unto itself. No more likely to be enforced than state laws that seek to protect domestic workers, the county bill only adds fear and discouragement to a relationship that has endured for centuries, in many cases without abuse.

Listen to a debate on whether Washington's summer cultural life is on the upswing or languishing in the humidity, today at noon on "Raw Fisher Radio" athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/rawfisherradio.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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