During the past eight years, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice has been a key ally in Domestic Workers United’s fight for fair treatment of housekeepers, nannies and other caregivers. As part of its Shalom Bayit [peace in the home] campaign, JFREJ has assisted the organization in determining best practices for employers of domestic workers, and joined DWU in Albany to lobby for a domestic workers bill of rights. Now their work is paying off.
The New York Senate earlier this month passed the bill of rights, a year after the Assembly passed a similar bill. The legislation affords domestic workers — nannies, housekeepers and home assistants — basic workplace rights, such as termination notice and sick pay, as well as legal recourse to take action against an abusive employer. Domestic workers were not included by President Roosevelt in the National Labor Relations Act, and have since been excluded from the protections given to most other workers in the United States.
Sarah Fields, program coordinator at JFREJ, spoke recently The Sisterhood about the organization’s involvement in the campaign for domestic workers’ rights.
Elissa Strauss: When did JFREJ get involved with domestic workers’ rights?
Sarah Fields: In 2002, JFREJ began working with Domestic Workers United. In 2003 and 2004, JFREJ helped pass a New York City Council resolution for domestic workers rights. JFREJ was the only ally organization that DWU felt both shared their political vision and had access to employer communities.
How has JFREJ been involved?
Shalom Bayit developed a vision of altering power relations between domestic workers and employers by advocating for change in employment practices and empowering community members to speak out and educate each other and the community at large about Jewish values and domestic labor. JFREJ began to reach out to employers, specifically to try and get them to begin using a standard contract. We also began reaching out to synagogue communities, where employment of domestic work was common.
We also organized the Employers for Justice Network, which is a group of approximately 100 employers of domestic workers, who have improved their employment practices and taken action in support of the Domestic Workers’ bill of rights.
So what is the Employers for Justice Network and how can people get involved?
These are employers who have committed to taking one step up in their employment practices — this could be in salary, sick days, vacation time, holidays, conversations with their employees, a contract, environmentally friendly cleaning products, etc. They improve their own practices and then often have living room gatherings where they invite their employer friends over to engage on the issue and get them to improve practices as well. Then they lobby, speak at rallies, public hearings. … People can get involved with the Employers for Justice Network by contacting JFREJ and connecting with the campaign’s organizers.
What challenges did you face when trying to educate employers about the way to treat their domestic employees?
Many people don’t to see themselves as employers or their homes as workplaces. Our analysis says this is a feminist problem as people don’t consider the home as a place of work because domestic work is not real work, but rather the work of women.
So it is fair to say we’ve had a fair amount of resistance and continue to see it even in the debate in the Senate. Other problems come from employers’ worries and hesitations about the logistics of implementing changes in their relationships. The shift in pay or treatment can be a real adjustment in their spending and budgeting, but we make sure to emphasize worker justice and proper employment ethics as one of the central values of all employer-employee relationships.
Do you have any personal connection to this work?
For me, as a woman who grew up in a time in which I was told I could “have it all,” part of me connected with the idea of the fact that another group of women work to make that dream possible. More specifically, growing up my parents made a particular point of not hiring someone to work in their home.
My grandparents were longtime employers of a housekeeper and I now realize they were model employers. My grandfather, as the owner of a medium-sized business and my grandmother, active in her teachers’ union, saw their housekeeper as an employee, who they paid social security for, gave time off to and tried to treat well. Many of the younger members of our campaign grew up in homes with domestic workers in which there was little discussion surrounding such employment.
What’s next for the Shalom Bayit campaign?
The next step is to get the bill of rights into law in New York State. The Senate passage last week was, of course, huge, but not the end of the road. Presently, the assembly bill needs to be reconciled with the Senate bill and then once that happens Gov. Paterson will then need to sign the bill into law — something we are confident he will do.
The Jewish Group Behind the Nanny Bill of Rights
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.