IT BEGAN SOME 30 years ago in Englewood, N.J., when Anita Shelton's aunt, Viola Reeves, worked for a woman who lived on "The Hill." Viola Reeves went there early in the mornings by bus, but at night, after the dinner dishes were done, the woman brought her home. In a Cadillac. She parked the Cadillac in front of the house and Anita would come out and help her aunt bring in groceries or hand-me-downs. These were the gifts of friendship that the woman on the hill gave her maid, and Anita despised them.
And she despised the free psychiatry Viola Reeves would give out on those evenings when the woman stood in front of the house, pouring out her heart. All the while the Cadillac was parked out in front for the whole neighborhood to see, and to realize what kind of work Viola Reeves did. "It was embarrassing to us," says Shelton. "I wanted her to move on ."
When Viola Reeves retired and grew old and sick, she still baked the Thanksgiving and Christmas cakes at her home and then took them to the woman's house where she prepared the holiday dinner. The woman told her she could never manage without her, and Viola Reeves believed it.
Shelton tried to tell Viola Reeves that the woman was taking advantage of her, that she was being exploited, but she would have none of it. "The relationship between the household technician and the madame, as they called her, is clouded in friendship," says Shelton.
It is not clouded in Anita Shelton's mind. Not at all. She saw what happened to her aunt and she had a taste of it herself when she worked as a mother's helper in high school. She knows that when you are a maid you don't get sick leave and you don't have health insurance and that the madame may visit you in the hospital and bring you a nightie but she won't bring you a pay check. You get another nightie at Christmas instead of a bonus and you get hand-me-downs and gifts of good cuts of meat instead of the minimum wage.
Shelton left New Jersey and came to the Howard University School of Social Work, graduating in 1959. She worked for the Christ Child Settlement House and for the Urban League and she started organizing household workers. By 1976 she became executive director of the National Committee on Household Employes.
This week, she and her organization scored a singular triumph here: The D.C. Minimum Wage Board raised the minimum wage for household employes from $2.65 to $3.50, the highest level in the country. Babysitters will get $2.90 an hour under the new standards which go into effect Feb. 4. Shelton knows that this may apply only to Washington now, but only for now. Maryland and Virginia will have to raise their minimums in order to compete successfully for household help.
Shelton says that a lot of people don't realize their maids are covered by the minimum wage and that many undocumented aliens working here as domestics will have trouble collecting it. But she also knows that many of the 9,000 people working as domestics here -- most of whom are black women -- will collect a substantially bigger pay check and for many of them that means they can afford better child care.
"We know many of them are paying as high as $35 a week for child care.So we know what happens. As soon as the child is old enough he has to take care of himself.
"I don't think people ever understand that with the salary I'm paying my worker she must take care of another family. The idea that this $30 a day is one fifth of the weekly income of that worker is really not well understood," says Shelton.
"There is a possibility some people won't afford the $3.50 an hour. We've taken the position that we won't subsidize middle-class families with our work. We know some can't afford it and we think it's cleaner if they say that and dismiss the workers. We're encouraging our workers not to undertake any part-time work or shorter days. We know the worker won't have any trouble finding another day's work."
Shelton is talking about professionalizing the household worker, trying to develop training programs for them and methods of certifying people as having certain skills. In the long run, her organization -- which has 43 chapters and about 7,000 members, she says -- wants to unionize household workers, but she does not seem optimistic.
She talks about a decent day's pay for a decent day's work and how the minimum wage will help attract more women into household work. Shelton knows there aren't nearly enough women willing to do household work under current conditions but she also knows working mothers can't work without household and child care help. Shelton knows that women willing to do household work are finally holding some high cards.
She has seen the absurdity of the past and the present in which middle-class women wonder how the Violas of the world manage and then complain when Viola doesn't show up on Wednesday because she is sick or her sister is sick and her children have no one to care for them. Household workers don't have insurance, which means they cut corners on health care and "are probably sicker than other workers," says Shelton.
Their child care arrangements are the best they can afford, which means they are at best unstable. "We tolerate some situations that are really not conducive to work," says Shelton.
Anita Shelton, who is divorced and the mother of two sons, ages 6 and 9, works full-time at the Urban League and she understands about babysitters and household help. "I was instrumental in passing something that I'll have to comply with myself. I'll feel the crunch like everyone else. But I don't feel we as women and as feminists can afford to have people work for us at wages less than what is required for them to take care of their own families and maintain their own homes."
Women on "The Hill" exploited women like Viola Reeves and they got away with it, in part, because job opportunities for black women weren't exactly limitless in those days. Sometimes the white women felt sorry for their maids, sometimes they felt friendship and sometimes they gave them guilt gifts. Shelton is saying household workers don't want guilt gifts any more. They want money to support themselves and their families and they want professional respect, and women seeking household help are going to need to understand that.