Volume No. 2 Issue No. 62 - Monday, December 15, 2008|
By JULIE SCELFO - New York Times
IN September, Cathy DeVore, a real estate agent in Larchmont, N.Y., whose business has been at a standstill lately, began taking gradual steps to lay off her longtime nanny and housekeeper.
Regina Mingo, a nanny, lost two jobs this year and gave up her apartment.
Aware that the woman supports a son, a mother, and a niece in Dominica, and worried for their well-being, Mrs. DeVore wanted to make sure her employee found another source of income before losing her $500-a-week salary.
“I told her I was worried about her job security with me, and found her an additional day of work with my sister, and told her that she should start saving because I was worried about having to cut her back more,” Mrs. DeVore said.
“In October I started a no-overtime policy; in November I told her that as of Jan. 1, I am cutting her back to 20 hours a week, and that as of June 30, I probably won’t need her at all.”
Mrs. DeVore said that both she and her employee (who declined to be interviewed and asked not to be named) had marveled at the speed with which the financial crisis had hit home.
“We talk about the trickledown effect of Wall Street, how my selling less houses is going to affect her mother living in her hut in Dominica, which is crazy,” she said. “But her mother is going to get less sugar because she has less money to send home.”
In the New York area, where there is a high number of dual-career professionals and where workdays are notoriously long, the number of people filling in for them at home is also immense.
Domestic Workers United, a nonprofit advocacy group, estimates there are more than 200,000 nannies, housekeepers, personal chefs and other domestic workers employed in the New York metropolitan area.
And as professionals recalibrate their spending because of job losses, salary or bonus cuts or just anxiety about the future, said Ai-jen Poo, an organizer at Domestic Workers United, “domestic workers’ wages are often the first thing that gets compromised.”
“Essentially, 10,000 jobs lost at Lehman Brothers means 10,000 domestic workers’ jobs that are in jeopardy,” she added, referring to the number of people in North America who were employed by the bank.
Given that the connection between domestic workers and their employers is often more intimate than other working relationships, when it is threatened by economic downturn, feelings on both sides run high.
For employers, who form attachments to the people they entrust with their children and their homes, terminating or even scaling back the relationship can feel like betraying a family member.
For workers — particularly those who are being paid off the books and have little or no legal protection or financial buffer — there is much more at stake.
One employer, a lawyer who grew up “very middle class” in a household with few luxuries, said that she and her husband, also a lawyer, had taken on a lot of domestic help — a housecleaner, two part-time nannies, even a dog walker — because “our time became more valuable than anything” when she went back to work after having children.
But now that money has become more of an issue again, the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she pays her workers under the table, said cutting back on their hours was not so easy.
“We pay an extra five hours a week so we can have a date night,” she said. “It’s a complete luxury so it could easily be cut” — except that one of the nannies, paid $18 an hour, depends on that extra work.
She is also considering dismissing the housecleaner, to whom she pays $150 a week. “She doesn’t do that great a job, but she has four kids and I know she relies on the money.”
The cleaner once told her that she couldn’t wait even a few days for a check to clear, suggesting to the lawyer that she lives hand-to-mouth. “If being late is going to affect her, imagine firing her,” the lawyer said.
Many employers interviewed for this article said they had searched for other ways to save money before laying off housekeepers or nannies or cutting back on their wages. After losing her job teaching art classes in September, Vicki Devor (no relation to Cathy DeVore), a 48-year-old mother in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, gave up on eating lunch out and a $59-a-month gym membership, she said, before even considering laying off her housekeeper, who cleaned Ms. Devor’s apartment twice a month for $100 a visit.
It was really hard,” Ms. Devor said. “She needs the money. Initially, I just cut her back to once a month, but told her that soon I wasn’t going to be able to keep paying her. I just couldn’t justify it.”
The housekeeper has returned to her native Poland — first to take care of an ailing sister, then of the sister’s orphaned children — and declined to be interviewed about her lost job.
Often, employers who lay off domestic workers feel driven to help them find other employment. Alexa Winton, a design historian and adjunct instructor at Parsons, recently dismissed her daughter’s three-day-a-week nanny, Regina Mingo, after cutting back on her own teaching schedule. “As much as I had to make this financial decision for us, I feel so responsible for Regina,” Ms. Winton said. “She’s a great baby sitter, and she hasn’t found anything.”
Ms. Winton has posted notices on two Brooklyn Internet message boards advertising Ms. Mingo’s formidable skills and availability, but there have been few inquiries.
For her part, Ms. Mingo is trying to stay optimistic — she has been a professional caregiver for New York families for 21 years, and says she knows former employers are looking out for her — but her position with Ms. Winton was not the first job she lost this year.
In June, a family that provided the two days of work that filled out her income laid her off. “I was struggling to pay rent,” she said, and in October she had to give up her third-floor walk-up in Carroll Gardens. At the moment, she is searching for a place to live.
“Now, it’s hard,” Ms. Mingo said last week. “Nobody’s looking for baby sitters.”
The message boards Ms. Winton used, Park Slope Parents and BoCoCa Parents (which is for families who live in Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens), were already full of postings from parents recommending that other people hire their former sitters, or take on “shares” of their current ones.
On Saturday, a woman who said her husband was recently laid off wrote on BoCoCa Parents, “we love our nanny and want to try our best to keep her with us. If you would be interested in a nanny share — we would love to speak with you.”
Not all employers, of course, show so much concern.
Michelle, a nanny from Guyana who worked until recently in the New York area, and wouldn’t give her last name because she is in the country illegally, said she had been with her employers, a media executive and his wife, for a year and a half before they fired her last month.
“They came to me one evening and said to me they can’t afford to pay me anymore,” said Michelle, who lives in Queens and supports two teenage sons in Guyana, and hasn’t yet found a new job. “I said, how long are you going to give me? And they said just the following week. It’s close to Christmas. This is a very bad time.”
Unemployed domestic workers who are able to secure new positions may have to accept lower salaries. Jaime Hochhauser, who runs the Right Staff, an agency that places nannies and housekeepers with families throughout the tri-state area, said the compensation being offered right now is about 20 percent less than it was six months ago, a decrease that’s consistent “even among the wealthiest clients.”
(Workers who are still employed, too, may find their circumstances reduced along with their bosses’. “I got a 20% pay cut,” someone posted on the UrbanBaby chat boards last week. “Should I give one to my nanny as well?”)
Employers are also combining positions, asking for nannies who will watch their children and do the cleaning, for example, or switching from three days a week of help to just one, according to Ms. Hochhauser and several other agency owners.
“There’s a lot of fear around job loss,” said Ai-jen Poo, of Domestic Workers United. “Workers are getting their hours cut, they’re getting fired, their employers say they found somebody who will work for less.”
And “unlike other sectors getting hit, domestic workers have no safety net,” she added. “It’s the invisible, untold story of this crisis. It’s really hitting people hard.”
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