Over at Wandering Scientist the other day, Cloud posted about the negativity of internet haters. Measured, thoughtful criticism is a gift. Snarky personal attacks don’t really add much to the discussion. But because the internet often allows for anonymity, the internet is full of the latter. When people don’t worry about social judgment, and don’t worry about being caught, it doesn’t tend to bring out the better angels of human nature.
Which brings me to the topic of today’s post: the treatment of domestic workers in the US. Researchers from the University of Chicago and domestic worker advocacy groups recently undertook a nationwide survey of housekeepers, nannies and other caregivers (generally for the elderly). The New York Times covered the results, and here is a link where you can download the whole report.
Suffice to say, the surveyed workers reported some pretty shabby treatment. About a quarter of workers earned less than the minimum wage. Many reported incurring injuries (although I was not surprised that about a third of nannies had contracted an illness in the line of work — I’m surprised it’s not 100% since my kids get me sick all the time). Others reported working many days straight with no break, of feeling unable to refuse overtime, of getting no paid time off, and of being verbally abused. But for me what was the kicker was that 91% of domestic workers reported that their employers did not contribute to Social Security. In other words, only 9% of nannies and housekeepers are being employed on the books.
As a member of that 9% of employers doing things legally, that figure really bothers me, especially in light of the report’s subtitle: “The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work.” In reality, domestic work isn’t unregulated. In most cases, minimum wage laws apply. In New York where we used to live, employers were legally required to pay time and a half over 40 hours, to provide regular days off, to have disability and workers comp insurance for all employees, and so forth. The problem is that so few families are following the laws that exist. So you can slap all the new laws on the situation that you want. But if 91 percent of families who have nannies and housekeepers are going about their lives breaking the basics of employment law, they’re not going to feel obligated to follow any new regulations either.
I think the bigger problem is in the first part of the subtitle: domestic work is often invisible. It’s invisible when family members (e.g. moms) do it, and it’s invisible as part of a paid arrangement, when much of it takes place in homes and other private spaces that people aren’t really policing. Most families don’t have many domestic workers and so there aren’t the eyes of crowds watching behavior.
But beyond that, one of the key factors driving illegal situations is that families aren’t worried about getting caught. Unless you’re running for public office, you have almost no chance of your illegal behavior — hiring undocumented immigrants, and/or not paying Social Security taxes, unemployment compensation premiums, etc. — coming to light. No one is quizzing nannies in the parks, asking to see paychecks with evidence of tax withholding. I’ve heard a few stories of people facing hefty fines when a nanny is let go and tries to collect unemployment benefits, leading state labor department officials to investigate why there’s no employer ID number. But these stories are rare, too. After all, there are plenty of domestic workers who’d prefer not to pay taxes as well, and so go along.
The report does note that there should be more policies supporting two-income families and other families with caregiving responsibilities. Which is fine. But I’m not terribly sympathetic to the excuse that employing people legally is complicated (nope, you can outsource payroll to a payroll company) or expensive. It’s no more expensive than any other job. The difference between what it costs an employer to employ someone, and what that employee takes home, is an inefficiency involved in all legal economic transactions. We tolerate that inefficiency — i.e., our taxes — because we want roads, schools, police, health care, a military, courts, etc. Presumably, many of those 91% of employer families paying off the books want those things too. I’d love to see some better mechanisms for enforcement in this area.