Many employers still unaware of NY nanny law

October 1, 2012 Associated Press
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Allison Julien worked for more than two decades as a nanny in New York, toiling 50 to 60 hours a week without overtime pay until the state enacted the nation’s first bill of rights for domestic workers two years ago.

Since then, the Barbados immigrant says her job has changed dramatically. She still dedicates long hours to caring for children in Brooklyn’s upscale Park Slope neighborhood but she now has a written contract with the parents who hired her, guaranteeing overtime. She is also assured one day off a week and three paid personal days yearly.

California could become the next state to adopt such legislation if the governor signs a similar bill in the next few days. Other states could follow, with efforts under way in Illinois, Washington, Massachusetts, Hawaii and Maryland for their own domestic worker bill of rights.

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Although New York’s Labor Department has investigated 80 cases since the law went into effect in late 2010 and recovered $250,000 in unpaid wages for domestic workers, getting the word out about the law remains a major hurdle, department spokesman Leo Rosales said. Authorities have reached out to community groups, employer organizations and foreign consulates to find those affected.

They are lessons supporters of a similar bill in California say they will take into account if it becomes law.

“The challenge is this industry and workforce is so fragmented and decentralized,” said Helen Panagiotopoulos of the Domestic Workers United, a New York City-based advocacy group. “The workplace is in the privacy of someone’s home. That’s why we’ve started to use strategies to fight those challenges by training domestic workers to spread the word.”

The group runs a 24-hour hotline to advise workers about their rights and offers a free monthly legal clinic.

Julien said the law has empowered her to demand what workers in other jobs were already getting.

“These bare minimum standards go a long way for a lot of people. I know firsthand that a lot of workers don’t have these. A lot of us work seven days a week without overtime,” she said.

Many domestic workers are immigrants who may be afraid to speak up or unaware of their rights, labor officials say. It also has taken time to raise awareness among employers.

In a survey conducted last year of more than 1,000 Brooklyn parents by the Park Slope Parents group, only 15 percent said they paid nannies overtime, while 44 percent said they paid the same rate after 40 hours a week.

Forty percent said they didn’t ask their nannies to work extra hours. Pay ranged from $10.85 to $20 an hour, with an average of $16.41 for those paid on the books and $14.56 for those paid off the books. Only 17 percent kept records of work hours.

Susan Fox, a parent who founded the Park Slope group, said parents have limited knowledge of the law, with almost half those surveyed in 2011 saying either they hadn’t heard of it or didn’t think it applied to them, while 37 percent thought they were in compliance, and 18 percent thought they weren’t.

Fox said her group held workshops but has found many parents who don’t pay on the books believe it does not apply to them.

“We tend to hear crickets about issues surrounding nannies, pay and laws, since the laws can be confusing, parents can be overwhelmed, overworked, and unable to pay exactly as the laws mandated,” she said in an email to The Associated Press.

Domestic workers also often are confused about the law.

Susan Tokayer, who owns a nanny agency in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., called Family Helpers, just north of New York City, said she gives clients information about the 2010 law but “I don’t think it has made a difference.”

She said many parents who paid under the table are probably not complying, while people who pay on the books, such as her clients, were already required under New York’s existing labor laws to pay time-and-a-half as well as worker’s compensation and disability. “It became a law again,” she said.

She said it’s standard practice to give nannies two weeks paid vacation in their first year, which is more than the law requires.

As they did in New York, domestic workers played a key role in drafting California’s bill.

Under New York’s law, nannies, housekeepers and caretakers are given one day off per week, overtime pay for more than 40 hours a week, three paid day off annually, and legal recourse when their rights are violated. Live-in nannies receive overtime after a 44-hour work week.

The biggest difference between the bills was that California’s workers set as a priority a requirement that employers provide an appropriate place for caretakers who spend the night, and uninterrupted sleep, said Andrea Cristina Mercado, the director of the California Domestic Worker Coalition, which led the effort on the West coast.

“Some have been forced to sleep on floor, or made to work throughout the night.” Mercado said.

Paid vacation days were left off the table in California to ease the bill’s passage, supporters said, but workers want meal breaks and rest periods.

Sabina Widmann, a 40-year-old San Diego marketing director, said she has always paid overtime to her nanny who works more than 40 hours a week caring for her two daughters, ages 11 months and 5 years.

“I consider her to be like family. She is more than an employee,” Widmann said, adding that she threw her a birthday party with her friends and allows her to meet up with her friends at the beach while she cares for her daughters.

Still, she has mixed feelings about the bill.

“I think requiring people to pay overtime is probably a good thing,” she said. “But if they are going to require a lunch break, it’s not going to work. Really that would hurt the nanny more than me because I would have to put the little one in day care then.”

That concern was raised by many of the lawmakers who voted against the bill. If it becomes law, California’s Department of Industrial Relations will hammer out those details by January 2014.

Supporters say employers will have the flexibility to work out compromises such as compensating for working lunches or allowing on-duty breaks in the home, allowing them to rest when children take naps instead of being asked to do housework.

“We’ve heard concerns throughout our California campaign that providing these kinds of things for domestic workers is going to negatively impact people, negatively impact business, but we have not seen that to be the case in New York,” Mercado said. “I think public education is key. We are looking to New York to learn from them on how to embark on a really ambitious public education campaign both for domestic workers and employers.”

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