It was a typical day. The husband-and-father had left for the office at 7 a.m. "to get a little paper work done before the phone starts ringing." The wife-and-mother was trying to get dressed for her own job, see that the two children were dressed for school, make breakfast and supervise the eating of it. The 9 year old dawdled over her toast and poached egg, which she pronounced "yukky." The 3 year old, blanket-turned-Superman-cape flying behind him, raced into the kitchen faster than a speeding bullet, where he emptied an almost-full box of Cocoa Puffs onto the orange-juice-stained floor. Wife-and-mother retreated to the upstairs bathroom. Just as she jerked the last electric roller from her hair, the doorbell rang. "Mom!" called the precocious 9-year-old, relishing her own cleverness, "It's the angel sent from heaven!" The housekeeper was 10 minutes early.
Like the theatrical "angel" who makes Broadway productions possible, it is often the housekeeper -- or "household technician" in more current parlance -- who makes working possible for many of the approximately 350,000 women -- 53 percent of whom have children under 18 -- in Washington's labor force. Yet, as the demand increases, so do expectations -- on both sides.
Ask almost any woman who has hired, or tried to hire, a household worker and she will tell you her "horror stories." But household workers also have their own horror stories: earnings averaging $3,068 (the average earnings for year-round household employes, according to the Department of Labor), an income well below the poverty level; employers who expect her to work overtime whenever they need her but do not pay her for it; paying doctor's bills without health insurance; being out of work and unable to draw unemployment; facing old age without a pension or social security; not being paid for her vacation time or for when her employer goes on vaction for the entire summer; worrying about her own children who remain at home unsupervised while she goes out to care for another family; suffering the indignities of being considered "inferior," of being automatically addressed as "Rosa" when she would prefer to be called "Mrs. Edwards."
Those problems, say leaders of the National Committee on Household Employment, are the reason that more qualified people cannot be found and that fewer young women are choosing household work, particularly since the civil rights movement ended the days when it was one of the few occupations available to black women. The only solution, says Anita Shelton, former director of NCHE and now director of the D.C. Department of Human Rights, is to upgrade the profession, to convince people "that it's important work and should be treated accordingly." And that is just what NCHE has been trying to do since its founding in 1965, both by providing training seminars to improve workers' skills and by organizing them into affiliate groups that work for better wages, working conditions and benefits.
There are some 43 of these groups in 22 states and Canada. In Washington, however, there is presently no active organization of household workers, despite the fact that NCHE was largely responsible for raising the minimum wage for household workers in the District of Columbia to $3.50 an hour, the highest in the country and 60 cents above the $2.90 paid in Maryland and Virginia.
The fact is that although employers are required by law to pay the minimum wage, social security, workers' compensation and unemployment compensation, those rules are impossible to fully enforce. The Department of Labor estimates there are 9,000 household workers in the District of Columbia, but they concede that figure is "far too low" because many workers do not pay social security or taxes and thus are not easily counted. These workers do not want their income recorded because either they are on welfare or are already drawing social security or because they are illegal aliens.
In 1978, the National Committee on Household Employment made Georgetown a target area in their efforts to recruit workers because, according to the Department of Labor, it has the largest concentration of household employes. "it's a wealthy, supposedly enlightened community," Anita Shelton says, "but our initial survey revealed many violations of the law." This survey compiled data on wages and working conditions in the homes of some of the city's most prominent citizens, and the picture that emerged "is shocking," Shelton says. She refused, however, to release the data because "much of it is unverified" and could cost workers their jobs.
"Household workers have a fear -- often well-founded -- that if they demand higher wages and benefits, the employer will fire them or find a way to circumvent the law," Shelton says. She points to an employer's tactic of agreeing to pay the minimum wage of $3.50 an hour but cutting back the number of hours while still expecting the same amount of work. Or, she says, the employer may use the summer as a means to effectively dismiss the worker: "She says, 'We're going away for the summer, and I'll call you when we get back' -- but of course she doesn't."
And there are psychological complications as well. "The relationship between a household worker and her employer is not akin to any relationship we know . . . It's a very subtle thing," Shelton says. Many of us grew up with the attitude that "the maid" was "just like" -- but not quite -- a "member of the family," and in truth, the woman who cleans the house, does the laundry, cooks the meals, takes care of the children, probably knows more about the family than anyone else. It may also be true, says Shelton, that "the employer has done favors for the household worker -- lent money or helped with some legal matter. The favor then must be measured against a demand for a raise, and how can you make those demands of a friend?"
Shelton thinks that "the only hope" lies in convincing household workers that they can demand more because "there really is a scarcity of experienced household technicians -- just look at the want ads in the newspaper any day." She admits, however, that enforcement of the minimum wage and benefit requirements may lower that demand. "In some ways I think it was a false market to start with. People who couldn't really afford household workers had them because they could get them cheap," she says. "It will be too bad if raising the minimum wage makes for fewer jobs, but we had to do it to survive."
Anita Shelton believes that "the flooding of the market with foreign-born domestics who are totally unaware of their rights is a serious problem in Washington." It is impossible to say how many of them there are in the Washington area, but immigration officials estimate that there may be "several thousand," mostly from South and Central American countries.
Sister Manuela, a Spanish nun who has been in this country 21 years, run the employment agency at Centro Catolico Hispanico, where much of her work is placing Spanish-speaking household workers. Some of them come because they have relatives or friends in the United States; others come on diplomatic visas to work for embassy families but want to work for American families and stay in this country permanently.
"They [American families] call me all the time wanting a girl to work for them, to live in," Sister Manuela says. "I tell them what's what and they say, 'Sister, I'll never be able to pay that.'" Although Sister Manuela tells prospective employers about minimum wage and overtime requirements, she will consider referring a worker to a job if the employer offers as little as $250 a month. "The girls never complain," she says. "Eighty dollars a week seems like a fortune to someone who's been making $80 a month in her country."
An American family can sponsor an alien and apply for her working permit, a complicated process that takes about three months. Meanwhile, it is illegal to employ her. "I don't say it's legal," Sister Manuela says, "but they're not doing anybody any harm. They're not taking jobs from Americans. Even a lady in the immigration office hires from me."
There are many working mothers who believe that, as one put it, "the government should relax the whole visa process to make it easier to hire foreign-born workers." One argument for that, Anita Shelton says, is that "that family who employs the worker and applies for her papers has a great deal of power over her and that often makes her hesitant to speak up for herself in any way." On the other hand, says another NCHE executive, the relaxation of immigration rules might hamper efforts to improve the professional status of household workers. "It would just flood the market with a lot of people who don't speak English and could be more easily exploited," she says.
Perhaps the difficulty that NCHE has had in organizing household workers in Washington, which Shelton says "should be a prime target" because of its affluence, is related to that very affluence. As even Shelton herself admits, "A lot of workers have been paid more than minimum wage for a long time."
While there are undoubtedly household workers who are not receiving their due, many workers interviewed for this article felt that they had little to complain about. "I've been doing this work for 35 years," said one, "and I'll keep doing it as long as I can. I've worked hard and I'm proud of what I do. When I started I was making $4 a day, now I get all the benefits -- paid vacation, health insurance, all of it -- and I bring home over $100 a week after deductions."
Rhoda Hornsby, a local cook, was active in efforts by NCHE to get an affiliate organization started in Washington, but the group died, Hornsby says, for "lack of interest." Last summer an organizational meeting attended by this reporter was composed of two reporters; four employes of NCHE; Sister Manueala; Carolyn Reed, present head of NCHE and herself a household technician (a term she coined) for 25 year; and three household workers. Hornsby, who says that she receives "good pay and good benefits," believes the lack of interest is due to the fact that "most of the women I ride the bus with either are treated good or they're on social security and they don't want to get involved with anything like this." An additional problem, according to Hornsby, is the fact that NCHE moved its national headquarters from Washington to New York. "We don't have support here," she says.
Carolyn Reed, the most active and persuasive leader in the push to organize house-hold workers nationwide, argues that a take-home salary of $100 a week is "not so great when you consider the experience of someone who's been working 35 years and the variety of skills she must have by now. You can bet a plumber and an electrician make more than that."
Reed, who is presently "on sabbatical" from her job in the home of actress Jill Clayburgh's father, travels around the country to organize workers and push for such things as high school household management courses and is often in Washington to lobby congressmen and senators and testify beofre congressional committees. Reed endorses standardized contracts and better social security and workers's compensation benefits and also favors some type of government-sponsored program to train household technicicians child-care workers.
"I think things might be a little slow right now because I think we have taken a great turn to the right in this country," she says.
"You just look up there on the Hill. Most of them are rich folks, and most of them were raised by people like us.But I always say we must've done something wrong, 'cause they sure don't care."
Evelyn Miller owns Evelyn Miller Associates in Chevy Chase, an employment agency that specializes in domestic work. She has been in the business 18 years and in 1975 she incorporated the Ladies' Exchange, an agency that had been in business in Washington since 1893.
Things have definitely changed in recent years, she says. Fewer blacks are choosing the occupation, and there are more and more applications from foreign-born workers. On her desk is a small file cabinet containing seven drawers full of unfilled requests from prospective employers for live-in workers alone, a majority of them from two-income couples or single-parent families. According to Miller, the greatest unfilled demand is for someone who will take care of children and do light housekeeping. "Parents who work need someone who will work long hours, who will come in 7:30 or 8 a.m. and stay until 6 or 6:30 at night. A lot of workers don't want to do that even if it pays well." Miller says.
According to Miller, "a good, experienced household worker" in the competitive Washington market has been able to earn a salary of $125 a week "for some time," and salaries are currently going up.Several of the applications on her desk request $150, and "they'll probably get it."
To both employers and employes and Miller recommends the NCHE Code of Standards, which explains wages, benefits and performance standards for both, but, she says, "I can't enforce it." Expectations seem high, often too high, on both sides. "Sometimes workers are asking for the moon," says Miller. But parents want a lot for their money, too: "Parents want someone who will really care about their children, who will be an extension of themselves. They want someone who will take over . . . but not too much."