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Just Employers: Park Slope Parents Advocate for Domestic Workers’ Rights

Photo courtesy of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice
By Ja-Rei Wang

In 2010, New York ratified landmark legislation for domestic workers, a group excluded from the legal protections—such as the right to organize and collectively bargain—granted by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights gave domestic workers the right to overtime pay, paid days of rest and protection against sexual or racial harassment.

Yet many employers are unaware of these new provisions. And last week, the first national survey of domestic workers found 23% earn less than their state’s minimum wage—and for workers who live with their employers, the number increases to 67%.

That’s why Domestic Workers United (DWU), the New York-based grassroots organization that led the campaign for the bill, is working with a broad coalition to help domestic workers organize and educate the public how to make the law real. The effort, dubbed the Park Slope Education Project, connects nannies, housekeepers and caretakers in the upscale Brooklyn neighborhood with parent-employers. 

“When my son was three months old and I became a part-time employer of a nanny, I was completely confused about how to be an employer and felt isolated,” says Gayle Kirshenbaum, a Park Slope parent and a founding member of Hand in Hand, a domestic employers association. “I didn’t have a sense of support or guidance. I very much wanted to do the right thing. I didn’t know where to go.”

Along with Hand in Hand, DWU teamed up with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) and the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture to survey members. DWU found that a large percentage of Park Slope parents are not abiding by the new laws and, perhaps more significantly, wanted more comprehensive guidelines than are outlined by the bill of rights, which provides little guidance on what constitutes an ideal employer-domestic worker relationship.

The first phase of the education project trains domestic workers on their new rights and facilitates dialogue between them and their employers.

“We’ve had a chance to meet with parents in their living rooms and get them talking. They have a range of questions and confusions,” says Kirshenbaum. “For some, it’s an emotional thing for people to become employers, to turn their children over to other people. It’s hard for them to look at, to understand the life of the worker and to move beyond their sense of crisis—they just had a baby—and that the worker needs to get home at the end of the day to her own three children. We’re trying to broaden the lens of parents so that they have a full understanding of the life of the person who is coming to work for them.”

The feedback from these living room sessions, along with conversations at street fairs and community gatherings, is shaping what will be a new code of conduct, called the “Code of Care,” that will go far beyond the 2010 bill. Expected to be released in the spring of 2013, the guidelines will help establish clear work terms, such as work hours, and are designed to make domestic workers feel empowered to bring up workplace issues with their employer.

“These additional standards would really support workers and employers to have very respectful, trusting relationships that benefit everyone,” says Rachel McCullough, a JFREJ community organizer.

Indeed, for these Park Slope parents, a home is both a family’s haven and workplace. Organizers hope their efforts will lead to shalom bayit, Hebrew for “peace in the home,” for all parties.

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