Carolyn Reed, the New York City household worker-turned-reformer is in Washington a lot these days. She's talking organization with would-be leaders of this city's domestic workers, or -- as Reed prefers to call them -- "household technicians."
"I go where I feel the call for help," she says, "and right now I feel it from Washington."
Reed, 40, the leading figure in a nationwide movement to professionalize household workers, heads the National Committee on Household Employment (NCHE), quartered in the New York City offices of the National Urban League. Her organization now numbers 10,000 members, with the largest concentration in New York.
"We'll go to Washington's churches, to meeting hall, to wherever people go, to bring them our message: Household technicians should demand the same rights, protection under the law, health and Social Security benefits that any other workers can expect."
Reed also is meeting frequently with the Women's Bureau of the Labor Department to plan the 1980 Conference on Household Employment Oct. 24-26 at Memphis (Tenn.) State University.
"Since NCHE is committed to working more closely with household technicians in the South," says Reed, "and since Tennessee is one of the few southern states which has ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, Tennessee was a natural choice for our conference."
The conference, stresses Reed, is for both employees and employers -- "to work and to have fun together."
"We're not going to get anywhere," she says, "unless employees help us out of a sense of their own self-interest. It's in both of our interests to improve skills and pay.
"If we push for tax write-offs for housework (and not just child care), people may start paying taxes and giving household workers the long-term Social Security benefits they need."
Reed also wants to "reach out beyond our black constituency to form a new coalition with the Hispanic and European community, and to explore the nitty-gritty issues that affect all of us."
In Washington, Reed had the support of Rhoda Hornsby, a 60-year-old Jamaica-born household worker.
"But it's hard here," says Hornby. "The people in Washington don't want to talk. They don't want to get up in a meeting and say they clean houses. They're afraid of their bosses, and they're afraid of the IRS."
Washington's Spanish community supports some alignment with Reed's mostly-black organization.
"I love what Carolyn Reed is trying to do and I want to be very close to her group," says Sister Manuela, director of the Employment Office of the Spanish-Catholic Center in Mt. Pleasant, representing 2,000 Spanish and foreign workers in the city.
"Our problem," explains the quiet-spoken nun, "is more complicated because our employers (mainly foreign diplomats and international officials) are not subject to U.S. laws, and most of our workers live in."
Sister Manuela and her organization have sucessfully battled diplomats and international organizations to secure such workers' rights as: retention of their own passports, private quarters, 8-hour days and 5-day work weeks, minimum wages, and "the right," as Sister Manuela puts it, "to not be a prisoner in the employer's home."
Despite such efforts, the vast majority of the Washington area's estimated 13,000 household workers remain out of touch with local and national organizers, and many are afraid to talk with reporters:
"Oh no I can't take a chance," said one D.C. worker. "My boss might find out -- or the IRS."
They are even afraid to respond to organizer Hornsby when she tries to pass out union circulars on the tangled morning bus lines to the suburbs.
Small wonder, given the undercurrents of concern and dissatisfaction, that middle-class employers are having trouble working with, and keeping their help.
"We've got to communicate and let out the feelings in our hearts," says Louise Nobles, a Washington household worker for 26 years, "if we're ever going to work this thing out."
In this spirit, a dozen -- some identified -- of the city's household workers were asked to talk frankly about what it's like to be a household worker and what they'd like to see improved.
"We want respect," says six-year veteran Pearl Rogers, 31. "You somehow get this feeling that 'I'm paying you' means 'I can talk to you any kind of way I want.' A lot of older women take a heck of a lot of hassle from their bosses because they need the money and they know nothing else to do."
"Just because we clean houses, they think we are stupid," says Hornsby. "They leave us long lists of what to do. They write every little thing out." "
"Just once," laments Estelle Wheller, 35, a household worker for 10 years, "I'd like to see them do everything they put on our lists. Could they, in one day, clean a mansion, do laundry and shopping, and then be asked to clean 30 pieces of silver?
"Judas betrayed Jesus for that much!"
Other common complaints: "They say the good food is for the family and the left-over bologna is for us," or "Our dishes are the separate ones, kept under the sink."
"I told my boss, I'll clean up after you, but not your cat," said one long-time worker. "And every day, they'd ask me to clean up after the cat."
Another: "We are asked to clean toilets and dirty tubs without brushes, cleansers and rubber gloves."
"They expect us to do men's work, but they give us women's pay. Equal opportunity means that in addition to housecleaning, we get to climb ladders, clean windows and strip floors -- but they won't pay extra."
Says Nobles, 41, "We aren't selling our hours, but a day's normal housework. You've go to pay for the extras, because they are harder.
"Even thought I'm afraid of heights," she adds, "some extra money will get me to climb at least a small ladder."
Included in the category of extra-pay work are windows, stripping floors, cooking, sweeping front walks and porches and spring cleaning.
"We may still be tired," says one, "but the extra money sort of lifts our spirits."
So far as the frequent employer complaint about workers' failure to show up, one commented, "You think it's rude when we agree on the phone to come and then don't show up? What's really rude is being such a cheapskate. If you only offer me $25 for a day, and someone else pays $35, you just won't see me."
"I know a lady who flies to New York for lunch," says another, "and she won't even pay her help $30 a day."
Another: "What's really rotten is when they go on vacation and don't pay you."
"A lot of people," says Pearl Rogers, "won't pay carfare. We can't afford gas prices or the bus on our salaries."
Many workers, she adds, are elderly and they "get so tired walking and taking three or four buses after a hard day's work. That's why some won't go as far as Rockville, Potomac or McLean."
One of the major bones of contention between both employer and employe is the subject of time.
"We do the job until it is done, and then we go home," was the common response.
"If you don't think I'm doing enough work, tell me so, but let me decide how to get it done," says Nobles. "If you need me longer to watch your children, then pay me for child care."
Foreign workers, many of whom live in, were apt to complain less about specific job requirements than about living conditions.
For example, Columbian Magdalena Taborda, 26, now happily situated with an American family, says she "felt like a prisoner" in a diplomat's home: "He hid my passport and would not let me leave the house or talk to anyone on the street."
Sexual harassment on the job was mentioned in every conversation. "it's not special for household workers," said one woman in her early 40s. "It's present in any occupation."
"I feel blessed," says Nobles. "I don't have to take the things that other housekeepers have to, like fighting off the men when you are helping with all the Washington parties.
"They want to paw you . . . when they get intoxicated and let their hair down . . . I don't think it's good etiquette for them to be patting all over you in public -- or behind closed doors either!"
But most of the complaints boiled down to lack of respect, poor pay and nonexistent job security:
"From $30 a day, when you deduct carfare and babysitters, there isn't much left. Many people have to go on welfare, even after doing all that work."
"After working all our lives in houses, most of us have nothing -- no pensions, no Social Security, no health benefits."
Still, many insist they like the flexibility and sense of pride they feel in doing good work as household technicians, but they are constantly frustrated by wage and working benefits.
A typical comment: To pay taxes and union dues, I'd have to be paid $60 a day, and ain't no way I'm going to get that. We simply can't afford it."
Carolyn Reed thinks they can.
"They have to. If they don't pay taxes, they are living outside the law. If they don't pay Social Security and union dues, they are depriving themselves of long-term security and health benefits, and if the situation is not improved, the employer is going to be deprived of good help.
"We've got to all work together -- household technician and employer -- and the work is often long, lonely and tedious."
Here are contacts:
Carolyn Reed, National Committee for Household Employment (National Urban League), 500 East 62nd St., New York, N.Y. 10021. Household technicians may call her collect: 212-644-5592.
Rhoda Hornby, Washington organizer, weekends at 723-7028.
Sister Manuela, Employment Office of the Spanish Catholic Center 3055 Mt. Pleasant St., Washington, D.C. 483-1520. Se habla espanol.
Willie Delaney, Special Assistant to the Director, Women's Bureau of the U.S. Labor Department, 200 Constitution Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20210. Call 523-6611 for technical information on household workers' wages, rights, and benefits.