Vanessa May: When the Workplace Is Someone Else’s Home

Today we welcome a guest post from Vanessa May, author of Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870-1940 (June 2011). Here she reflects on how some of the recent policies that now protect domestic workers in New York mirror the struggle for rights and reform during the era highlighted in her book.  The passing of recent legislation finally rights some of the wrongs that affected public workers in a private space.  It is reforms and movements like these that we recognize and appreciate throughout National Women’s History Month. -Alex

Last year’s passage of the “Nanny Bill” by the New York State Senate is a tremendous achievement for the state’s domestic workers.  The bill promises household workers state protections they have long been denied, including holidays, a day off, and overtime pay.  This is not, in fact, the first time that the New York State Legislature has debated a bill like this one.  It’s perhaps comforting to suggest, as the bill’s sponsor, Senator Diane Savino, did in the New York Times, that domestic workers were excluded from labor protections because of the racism of southern Democrats during the New Deal.  But New York State domestics had to wait until 2010 to gain workplace protections that other workers have enjoyed for more than half a century for reasons that lie much closer to home.

In 1938 and 1939, the New York State Legislature debated similar bills aimed at bringing household workers labor protections including a minimum wage and a sixty-hour workweek.  Labor reformers had launched a nationwide campaign in those years to pass state labor laws for those who had been left out of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938.  This excluded group included large numbers of women, African-Americans, agricultural workers, and domestic servants.  But these were lean years for those who wanted more labor legislation and, unsurprisingly, the wage and hours bills never passed.

What is surprising is that many who had supported labor laws in the past refused to endorse a minimum wage and maximum hours for domestics.  Prominent women’s organizations, including the YWCA, the Consumers’ League, the League of Women Voters, and the Women’s City Club, refused to fully support both bills.  These groups had lobbied for the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and led the campaign to bring state-level protections to many workers excluded from the federal law.  They had written, campaigned for, and championed much of the progressive legislation that made the New Deal what it was.  The chances that a bill for domestic labor standards would pass without their support were slim.

Naked self-interest was only one reason for these groups’ discomfort with domestic labor laws.  The members of these organizations were middle and upper-class women who worried about maintaining access to cheap household help.  They, like professionals today, depended on domestics to do the housework while they pursued other interests.  But, the language these groups used to oppose the bill is telling.  One YWCA member insisted, “Housework cannot be regulated like factory work.”  A disgruntled member of the Women’s City Club complained, “There is too much talk about ‘labor and industry’ coming into the privacy of one’s home.” What these statements tell us is that activists believed domestic work differed from other kinds of employment.  The home, in their view, was a private place where families lived and loved.  It was not a workplace.  Housework was maybe not even work at all.  After all, the Women’s City Club refused to support the hours bill because, they said, “a maid sleeping in the same room as children . . . could be considered ‘on duty.'”   Real work took place in factories and shops, which were regulated by the government.  The home, reformers argued, needed no such oversight.

The result was the failure of labor standards for New York domestics during the Depression, with catastrophic consequences.  Throughout the 1930s, desperate workers in all five boroughs resorted to standing on street corners waiting to be picked up for day work.  They often accepted wages as low as ten or fifteen cents an hour, less than half what workers earned under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.  This exploitation still exists today.  Domestic Workers’ United, a New York union, reported that half of their members toil more than sixty hours a week, mostly without overtime.  Worse, thirty-seven percent said they cannot afford rent or a mortgage and forty percent said they cannot afford a phone.  Twenty-six percent live below the poverty line.  The attitude that allowed otherwise progressive New Yorkers to oppose domestic labor protections in the 1930s echoes today.  As a Brooklyn nanny  told the New York Daily News, “Because you work in a private house . . . they don’t think of what you do as real work or of you as a real worker.”

By passing the “Nanny Bill” the New York State legislature has righted a historic wrong.  A similar bill is now being considered by lawmakers in California.  Only when domestic workers everywhere are covered by laws similar to New York’s will we as a nation have acknowledged that housework is real work deserving of the same legal protections as other kinds of labor.

Vanessa H. May is assistant professor of history at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.