In a story on servants of diplomats in Monday's Washington Post, Paul Rao was incorrectly identified as the current employer of Sugunammu Meesarapu. Mrs. Meesarapu's visa expired two years ago, making her ineligible for employment in this country, and, although Rao is providing her with room and board until her suit against her former employers comes to trial, her is not paying her wages as an employer.
On Feb. 7, 1972, at an international arrivals terminal of New York's Kennedy Airport, a dark-skinned woman in a deep blue sari stepped out of an airplane and into America.
Her name was Sugunammu Meesarapu. She was 46 years old, a widow from the Indian city of Narsapur. She had come to settle in the Washington area, to cook and clean house for an Indian couple here on diplomatic visas, to make enough money for the college expenses of her two teenaged sons. She had wanted this trip so badly that for months, fearing disappointment, she had refrained from asking for it in her prayers.
Three years later, on a warm morning in June, Mrs. Meesarapu walked away from the Hyattsville apartment of the man she called ayyagaru - "master", in the Indian language Telegu. She did not come back. Alone in America, speaking no English, Mrs. Meesarapu sought refuge with a sympathetic acquaintance and tried to patch together the dream.
A lawsuit filed in Mrs. Meesarapu's behalf in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on April 19, 1976 charges her employers, Jessie and Wilmer Hamilton, with "false imprisonment, involuntary servitude, and other cruel and unusual treatments." A second suit, filed in Prince George's County Circuit Court, claims that based on state minimum wage laws, the Hamiltons owe Mrs. Meesarapu $15,000 in back pay.
She lives in a legal limbo now. She was admitted to this country because of the Hamiltons' offer of employment, and without that she must fight a deportation order while trying for State Department approval of a new job. She speaks only Telegu, but as her new employer translated her story in his Adelphi home last week, she was able to find the English words for something she wanted to say.
"My home," Mrs, Meesarapu said, "gone."
She is not alone. Every year, dozens of domestic servants arrive in Washington with special visas identifying them as employees either of diplomats or members of such International organizations as the International Monetary Fund and the Organization of American States. The servants may stay, according to the terms of the visas, as long as they satisfy their employers.
For some, that means new opportunity, higher wages, a change to bring relatives to America - the promise this country has offered since the years when hopeful immigrants streamed through New York's Ellis Island. Others, like Mrs. Meesarapu, describe the servant's visa as a one-way ticket to a nightmare.
If they displease their employers, they face possible expulsion from the country. Usually they speak no English, and unlike most aliens, they are isolated by their work rather than forced to learn the language. They live in embassies, chanceries, in suburban apartment complexes, in expensive homes where whole days are sometimes spent cleaning and cooking in silence.
And although American domestics have been protected since 1974 by federal minimum wage requirements of $2.30 per hour, there are foreign servants here who have never earned (on that pay scale) in their lives.
Foreigners entering the United States to work for America employers must undergo what the U.S. Employment Service calls "labor certification" an examination of the job offer, the foreigner's qualifications, and the proposed wages. Generally the job must be one that could not easily be filled by an American, and the salary offered must be at the prevailing rate, meaning at or above minimum wage.
There is no labor certification when a foreign domestic comes to America to work for another foreigner on a diplomatic visa. Although spokesmen for some of the international organizations in Washington said they provide counseling as to the minimum wage in this country, the State Department, which handles the visas of these domestics, doe not require their foreign employers to guarantee minimum wage.
"We don't have requirements for what their salaries are going to be or anything else," a State Department official said last week. "That's a courtesy that's extended in international practice to us."
It is a gray area in the law, a "little loophole," as Mrs. Meesarapu's attorney Gordon Berman put it, "big enough to drive a truck through."
Mrs. Meesarapu's suit for back pay argues that based on Maryland minimum wage laws, which embraced domestics 10 months earlier than the federal law, the Indian woman was underpaid from July, 1973 until the day she left her employer.
A similar suit in Fairfax General District Court charges that based on the federal law - state minimum wage does not apply to domestics in Virginia - a Columbian woman was underpaid for 2 1/2 years by her employer, an alien on a diplomatic visa. And in a U.S. District Court case filed last July in New York, two Filipina sisters, who say they served diplomatic employers for seven years at wages of $12 to $20 per month, have sued as a class all United Nations employees holding servants under similar conditions.
Last week, a former U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Alexandria to helping an illegal alien enter the country to work as the family's domestic and paying her less than the minimum wage.
Low pay, however, was the least of Mrs. Meesarapu's complaints. For almost three years, she said in her federal suit and a recent interview, she lived in lonely terror in the Hamilton's apartment and was forced to sleep on the floor.
Mrs. Meesarapu came to America, she said, at the suggestion of Mrs. Hamilton's sister, who lived in India and had been paying Mrs. Meesarapu about $4 a month (a standard wage there) to clean house and babysit. "Everybody talks very high about America," said Paul Rao, Mrs. Meesarapu's current employer, translating from the Indian woman's quiet Telegu. "She was praying to God that she would get help to overcome her financial difficulties."
She was promised, her suit charges, $200 per month, plus room and board.
She never received it. Mrs. Meesarapu's pay began at $1 per day, she said in her suit, and was gradually increased to $50 per month. In the Hamiltons' apartment she slept on a mat on the floor, she said in her suit, between the beds of the couple's two children.
They took her passport away, she said. When her visa expired the Hamiltons did not have it renewed, and she said in the suit that they threatened to have her arrested if she left their service. She cooked, cleaned, cared for the children, and spoke her own language only with deference, she said, to the friends of her employers.
The Hamiltons have been advised by their lawyer not to discuss the case, but they denied most of these charges in written responses to questions by Mrs. Meesarapu's lawyers. She was treated, they decalred, "like a member of the family," was paid $70 per month, was never threatened with arrest, and had never been promised a $200 salary.
She was also given a bedroom, the Hamiltons said. Sandra Antonucci, manager of their Hyattsville apartment building, said the Hamiltons' apartment has only two bedrooms.
"I have lists of witnesses who can show that the gal was free to come and go as she wanted to," said the Hamiltons' lawyer, Irving Dross, in an interview last week."They never knew there was any problem with her until she ran off on them." The couple held her passport "for safekeeping," he said, and let her visa expire only because they had neglected to renew their own.
"It may be that technically the Hamiltons have violated minimum wage laws, if they apply," Dross said. While denying completely the charges that the Hamiltons enslaved Mrs. Meesarapu, Dross said, he will argue the the minimum wage laws do not apply to holders of diplomatic visas.
Federal minimum wage laws - like state law, in those states that include domestics under minimum wage - is quite specific about salaries for live-in servants and the amount that may be deducted for room and board.
Federal law which applies to Virginia since there in no state law protecting domestics, sets the wage at $2.30 per hour, and although time and a half is not required for overtime, the servant must be paid for each hour of work. The employer may charge 75c for breakfast, 1.00 for lunch, $1.25 for dinner, and $15.00 per week for lodging. (He can increase the charge in some cases, but he must be able to prove over a three-year period that the increase was justified.)
In Maryland, the wage is the same but room and board charges are lower - 60c per meal, and $1.00 a day per room. In D.C., the minimum wage is $2.50, time and a half must be paid for each hour over 40 in a week, and the room and board charges are the same as the federal standard.
"You can't get domestic help at an affordable price in this country," Dross said, and pointed out that the Hamiltons paid Mrs. Meesarapu considerably more than she would have earned in India. It is a fairly common arrangement in the city's diplomatic community, he said.
"Because of the way they're brought up in their country, they've always had household help," Dross said, referring to the many diplomatic families who pay their servants less than minimum wage. "A lot of these people who need domestic help could never afford it unless they can bring people over based on the cost of living in their own country.
The State Department separates diplomatic visa holders into two categories.Ambassadors, career diplomats and consular officers receive what are called "A" visas, and are entitled under traditional rules of international protocol to immunity from prosecution under American law. They bring servants to the United States simply by listing them as bonafide employees.
Even if the courts rule that servants on diplomatic visas are entitled to minimum wage, the guidelines of diplomatic immunity would prevent American officials from prosecuting any visa holders who violate the law.
Members of international organizations, such as the World Bank, are admitted to this country under "G" visas, which also entitle then to bring servants. The immunity under a "G" visa is more limited, however, and if the minimum wage cases are approved, lawyers say the new salary requirements will apply to any "G" visa holder now underpaying their servants.
For Mrs. Meesarapu the back pay would help - she would send it to her sons, she said - but it would not erase the scars. As she spoke in Telegu her voice broke, twice, and when she was through she was asked what her greatest sorrow was.
Mrs. Meesarapu said something to Rao, and he translated, looking embarrassed. "They made a beggar out of me'," he said.