Episode 73: A Nanny Speaks Up

Don’t we deserve respect? Don’t we deserve to not feel like slaves?
— Jennifer Bernard

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This week, the busier you are, the likelier you are to pay someone else to do some traditionally female tasks… from childcare to cleaning…

“Professional women need somebody to look after the house and that hasn’t gone away. But it is something that makes many people very uncomfortable. I think women find it more uncomfortable to think about than men because so many of these people are women.”

And today a lot of them are also migrants with their own ambitions… and a desire for recognition…

“This is real work. Domestic workers make every work possible. If we don’t go to work employers can’t go to their jobs. Don’t we deserve respect? Don’t we deserve to not feel like slaves?”

Far more women work in other people’s homes today than they did 40 years ago. And there’s even more of a power disparity between you and your boss when their house is your office.   

This episode of The Broad Experience is sponsored by Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs is a nonpartisan magazine—they publish thoughtful pieces by experts who span the political spectrum, so they let readers form their own opinions about today’s most important global issues. Broad Experience listeners get a special discount – more than three-quarters off a subscription to Foreign Affairs— to sign up, go to ForeignAffairs.com/Broad.

I first talked to Alison Wolf about two years ago. She’s a professor at King’s College London and she’s the author of a book with a provocative US sub-title: The XX Factor – How the Rise of Working Women has Created a Far Less Equal World.

Now pretty much none of us wants to hear that, right – that because we’re working rather than tending to home and hearth society is less equal than it used to be? But Alison says this is an inevitable consequence of so many women becoming highly educated and getting good, demanding jobs. They cannot cook every night – they need much of their food preparation outsourced. They need either daycare or a nanny for their young children or home health aides for their parents. And what Alison calls a new servant class from prepared food workers to aides and cleaners – they’re generally not paid well.

Alison and I met in New York recently – she’d been teaching here this autumn. And I said it’s pretty depressing to read about this widening inequality among women and to think you’re part of it…

“It is pretty depressing. I don’t think it’s something women should beat themselves up about, it ‘s something that professional people need to be aware of. Because of course in the past there were servants – you look at the life of Virginia Wolf for example, renowned feminist writer. She always had servants, she took it for granted there were servants, because houses couldn’t be run without servants. What was also the case of course was that women as a class were in the house acting as organizers of servants and for the most part doing a lot of domestic work themselves. So we have this upstairs/downstairs image but the amount of women who were doing nothing in the house was minute. So the typical middle class/upper middle class pattern was you had a maid of all work, which pretty much summarized it. So you probably gave her the worst jobs like cleaning out the fireplaces, but the reality is it was a lot of work to have a household.”

Alison’s grandmother was a cook. She always told Alison she didn’t know why domestic service got such a bad rap – it really wasn’t so awful. And if you look at the data in Alison’s book it’s really interesting because it’s not just class-bound Britain where so many houses had staff. In America in 1870 Alison says almost half of employed females were domestic servants. And just before the first world war that number was still quite high – a third of working women in the US were servants. It was a just a given in a labor-intensive age that anyone who could afford it had help in the home.

But all that changed fast after World War II. Household help all but disappeared as the labor market opened up to women.  And thus was born the suburban housewife whose entire job was to care for the home and her children. That started to go away a couple of decades later…as educated women began working en masse…

“But the fact remains that just as men in the past needed someone to look after the house, professional women need somebody to look after the house and that hasn’t gone away. But it is something that makes many people very uncomfortable. They don’t like to think about it. I think women find it more uncomfortable to think about than men because so many of these people are women.”

About 90 percent in the US alone. And the fact that people can increasingly tap this kind of help – it’s all related to a big increase in migration that began in the ‘90s.

“You’ve got people recruiting in Indonesia to send nannies to Hong Kong, and people in the Philippines who are traveling to be housekeepers in LA. And you can see this happening whenever there is an economic downturn, what happens in countries hit hard by a downturn is that the women migrate…you can see this really clearly in some of the countries of the old soviet union where the economies have collapsed, there are no jobs at home for anybody, there is nothing for the men, the women leave to work as care assistants and nannies and cleaners and housekeepers in western Europe. You can see it clearly in this country too – instead of the world of the suburbs of the ‘60s and ‘70s where no one had live-in housekeepers, now so many people have a fulltime housekeeper who is almost always a different color and very often from a different country.

This global care chain is new, and you could say if you look at it as an economist that it’s great, everybody’s benefiting, the people who come get good wages and they send them home, and there are a lot of countries in the world where the money that people send home is a hugely important part of national income. On the other hand it makes a lot of us uneasy, this feeling of being, sort of behaving a little bit like a master race…with people from other countries coming and administering to our needs…”

I think that’s what makes me feel squeamish about all this here in America. Many people working for the gainfully employed are immigrants…and in the UK they may be Eastern European. In the US they’re usually a different race from the people they’re working for…

AM-T: “One thing that I notice particularly about New York, is how many white babies are being pushed about by women of color…it is a little odd, and I think the going rate for a nanny in New York is $15 an hour…and of course in America you don’t have health insurance, you have to buy that yourself, and I think it’s a rare employer in New York who is purchasing health insurance for their nanny…so that isn’t much, 15 bucks an hour.”

“It isn’t, and of course one of the problems is if you are going to have this kind of society you cannot pay everybody the amount of money that people who are employing the caregivers and nannies are being paid…this comes back to the inequality thing. You mentioned health insurance. If you are an American middle class or upper middle class person…you’ve got a pretty decent job and an income but it’s not stratospheric, so you’ve got your own health insurance, you’ve got your taxes, you’ve got your mainstream expenses – college fees are on the horizon, by the time you’ve taken all that out there isn’t that much left.

She says if you paid caregivers or cleaners or restaurant workers even half the hourly rate many middle class workers command the arithmetic would fall apart. 

And she says this situation of these big disparities in women’s wages is here to stay – because educated women aren’t going to abandon the workforce in huge numbers. But she says most countries could do more to protect lower-paid workers from exploitation and offer more in the way of a safety net.  

Some domestic workers in the US are organizing to gain more protections under the law. And they say their profession deserves more dignity than it gets.

Jennifer Bernard was born and raised in Trinidad. She was working as an accountant for the government there until the late 1980s…

“With all the, what was happening economically I was one of those that was laid off. And I though OK, everybody’s going to the US, maybe I should do that.”

By that point she was the single mother of an 11-year-old boy and she needed a job. So she left her son with her sister and made her first trip to the US. She eventually outstayed her visa and became one of many undocumented immigrants. She couldn’t land an accountant’s job even if she’d met the US requirements – which she didn’t. She needed money now. She liked children, she knew how to look after them, so she thought, why not try nannying? No one was fussy about her legal status in this profession. But…

“It didn’t meet my expectations at all.”

She landed a job as a live-in nanny for a couple in New Jersey. They had two girls. And Jennifer ended up doing a lot more than caring for them.
“You were the housekeeper, the nanny, the cleaner, the psychologist, you were like an octopus – you had many different hands, you just had to take care of everything. And if the family knew that you were undocumented, and they obviously knew because they’d always go for a domestic worker that was undocumented.”

If they knew you were undocumented she says it put you in a vulnerable position. An employer could always threaten to out her to the authorities. She had to toe the line. She says the man in this couple in New Jersey was fine, but she says his wife made it clear she saw Jennifer as a lesser being. She always looked forward to Friday nights when she’d leave their house and head to Brooklyn for the weekend.

“And one Friday when I was all ready to go into Brooklyn – I was always excited about getting out of there at the end of a week, it was almost like I’m imprisoned. And on Friday the mother of the kids came to me and said you cannot go home today, I need you tomorrow. And I said I have to go home to my family. And she said well if you leave this house you are not getting paid, and you just won’t come back. And I said, OK, I will leave without the money. And I didn’t have money on me enough to take me from where I was in New Jersey, I had to have a cab take me to the train station, I didn’t know how I was gonna get there and it really didn’t matter. I put my backback on my back and I took off.”

She set off on foot for the station…

“And I was walking and walking for like, 40 minutes and all of a sudden I heard the brakes of the car, someone step on the brakes really hard. It was the husband, the father of the children. And he said, what are you dong out here? And I said well, your wife told me I could not go home today and I need to go home to my family…and she did not pay me and I don’t have any money. And he said get in the car, and he was furious. He was such a kind-hearted person, I knew he would take care of me. So I got in the back of the car and he drove to the house, and he told me not to come out o the car. And I could hear his screams him telling her I’m a human being and she can’t treat me like that. And he came out to the car with my wages, an envelope, at that time I was making $240 a week, it was not enough for living in for a 5-day work week but it was enough for me to save, to get my son here eventually…so he gave me my wages, drove me to the train station and said he hoped my weekend would be OK and that I could come back on Monday, and I never went back.”

Now that was the worst job she ever had. Since then she’s had lots of positive experiences. She worked for a lawyer, then a neighbor of his, then an actress…nearly all this time she spent in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope…

“Those kids are still in my life, I meet them for dinner every now and then and we meet in Park Slope and they’re on the street corner waiting for me with their arms open wide. They make me feel so good about the work I do.”

AM-T: “Were you living in with all those families?”

“The only one I lived in with was that first one. And I made a pledge never to live in anybody’s house after that.”

She says working in someone else’s home is already tricky. Living there makes it even more so. She says she could never fight her former employer on her own turf – because it was her house. She held the power.

Jennifer says too many of her colleagues still feel like they can’t push back…

“I still talk to many domestic workers who tell you I feel like I’m a slave, I just have to do this. I have to feed my kids, I want to give my child a college education that I never had. I hear it all the time and I do understand it. And I appreciate the organization I’m a part of because they have given so much light to speaking out, looking for the respect that is due to you and even to accept this is real work. This is real work. Domestic workers make every work possible. If we don’t go to work, employers can’t go to their jobs. So we make every work possible. Don’t we deserve respect? Don’t we deserve to not feel like slaves?”

That organization she mentioned – that’s the National Domestic Workers Alliance. It has worked hard to improve life for workers like Jennifer. If you work as a home health aide, housekeeper or nanny in America you have few protections under federal law. This group helped get new laws passed in several states including New York – laws that mandate things like overtime pay and a minimum of one day off a week.

Jennifer is an organizer for the Alliance. And since the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights became law here a few years ago…

“I have really been so confident since then that I really ask for what I want. I say what I want. I prepare a questionnaire when I go for interviews and I encourage domestic workers to do the same. This is an irregular situation that you’re in. Somebody’s home become your workplace. It’s not like walking into an office. So how do I adjust? I had a situation like that today where I was asked to go into my employers room for some reason and I said I’ve never been in there, I’m not going in there.”

She says keeping out of her boss’s most private space – it’s her way of maintaining boundaries in what is her office. 

Another thing Jennifer does now she feels more empowered? She negotiates above the average New York nanny’s wage when she goes for a new job.

“I ask for what I want now. I don’t work for $16 an hour. I make more than $16 an hour.

AM-T: Can you give us a sense, between 20 and 25, 25 and 30…

“Well, I work for 20-plus dollars an hour. My taxes are paid, which I’m very happy about. I get a monthly Metrocard, every month. And it did not come easy. It comes because I now have a voice I did not have before.”

She’s a legal resident these days, and next year she’ll become a US citizen.

She’s happy with her current employer – a journalist, as it happens. I wanted to double check how many children her boss had, and that question led to some unexpected places.

AM-T: “Are you looking after just the one little boy at the moment?”

“Yes, just the one baby. I had a family before him and I have to say this, that when I listen to the voices of my sisters who were nannying I used to hear them say ‘Oh, I would never work for people of my kind’ and this is quote-unquote black employers…and I said, oh, I have to try this myself, I’m just that kind of person, I’m going to find a black employer and work for them and find out what it’s like. Experience is the best teacher…if I don’t experience this I don’t know what they’re talking about. I went and worked for a black family. It was challenging but it had a good ending…and it had a good ending because I really stood my ground, and what I believe in, how I should be treated, and what my expectations where. And I must say today even though I’m not working for them we have a wonderful relationship.”

AM-T: “Now why was it challenging?”

“Well it was challenging because…I really try to understand when black people become professionals, some of them are on a pedestal where they look down on their own kind. And it’s sad to say but it does happen. It happens in every race but as a black person experiencing it, it’s not always what you expect at all. You expect them, and maybe you shouldn’t, but you expect everyone to respect eachother, but for some reason the one-on-one, it’s like I expect you to understand my plight more, me, the same as you are, what my struggles are…and it’s not always like that, because I am the professional and you’re not, you are the domestic worker… and you still get the feeling of what people’s concepts are for a domestic worker, they still don’t think that you should be respected and you still see that a lot. I see it a lot of times. I have been fortunate to demand the respect and get it, because I’m giving it and if I’m giving it, I would expect it back. So for me it has been good, it has been good. The challenges are what I grow on, and it’s OK. Because I don’t expect life to be all without hurdles.”

It hasn’t been. But she did get her son over here to live with her by the time he was 13. He’s now married, and he’s given her a grandson. And she’s proud of her last three decades as a caregiver to other people’s children.  

AM-T: “And given you had this career as an accountant before you left, do you view this as a career or as a job or a vocation?”

“Well I do consider it my career now because if I spent almost 28 years as a nanny, this is my passion, this is something that, the plan that was laid out by God all the time that I didn’t recognize. We all have something that we’re good at and sometimes we don’t recognize it. We go into all the different avenues searching for the place we should be at. And this is the place I should be.”

A lot of us envy that certainty.

“I am a professional nanny. I am a domestic worker. And I’m a hard-working domestic worker who love my kids with all my heart. And that ability to love someone else’s kid and to give of yourself, is the greatest gift in the world.”

Jennifer works in downtown Brooklyn these days. She’s planning a big party next year for her 60th and to celebrate becoming an American citizen.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. You can post a comment on this show either at the BroadExperience.com or on the Facebook page – if you’re on Facebook feel free to give it a ‘like’. I’m on Twitter at ashleymilnetyte. And you can sign up for our newsletter at The Broad Experience.com.

Don’t forget to check out my sponsor for this episode at foreignaffairs.com/broad – they’re offering an amazing discount off the regular price for a year’s subscription. And this is the second year they’re sponsoring the show. Thank you.  

Also if you weren’t listening to The Broad Experience a couple of years ago check out the first podcast I did with Alison Wolf – that’s episode 27.  Among other things she talked about how the Scandinavian countries aren’t quite as equal as many of us assume.

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I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time.