Vanessa May: Domestic Workers, “Nannygates,” and the IRS

We welcome a guest post today from Vanessa May, author of Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870-1940. In her book, May explains how and why domestic workers, the largest category of working women before 1940, were excluded from labor protections that formed the foundation of the welfare state. Earlier this spring, May blogged about New York’s 2010 “Nanny Bill,” which grants domestic workers days off, overtime pay, and protection from harassment. In today’s post, she addresses the ongoing tendency of employers to keep domestic workers in an underground economy, hidden from the oversight and protection of labor laws.—ellen

In late September 2010, Meg Whitman found herself doing the very last thing any candidate for public office wants to do less than a week before the election in California’s closely-fought gubernatorial race: defending herself against accusations that she had knowingly employed an undocumented worker in her home. Whitman was not the first prospective public official to face these charges. Zoë Baird dropped out of contention for Attorney General when the Clinton administration learned that she had employed undocumented workers as a nanny and a chauffeur, an incident that introduced the term “nannygate” into the political and cultural lexicon. There were whispers about household workers with unreported income that surrounded Caroline Kennedy’s withdrawal from contention for Hillary Clinton’s abandoned New York Senate seat. Politically ambitious women seem to face this scrutiny of their domestic arrangements more often than men, but even that has begun to change. In 2004, Bernard Kerik lost his chance to lead the Department of Homeland Security when officials in the Bush administration questioned the legal status of his housekeeper-nanny.

A lot of average, middle-class families must squirm a little each time incidents like these make the front pages of the newspaper. Thousands of Americans pay household workers to clean their homes, take care of their children, and perform other life-sustaining household tasks. Even when workers are legal residents of the United States they almost always work under the table. Official estimates suggest that as many as 80 to 95 percent of people who employ domestic workers do not report their wages to the IRS. These workers do not, therefore, pay income taxes but they also go without benefits like social security or worker’s compensation. Working under the radar of labor officials and tax authorities also makes these workers vulnerable to a host of labor abuses. Most do not receive a minimum wage or overtime pay nor do they enjoy the protection of progressive state laws like those recently passed in New York, which guarantee domestic workers one day off per week, three paid holidays, and protection from sexual harassment and employment discrimination.

Reformers who worked tirelessly for decades to extend protective labor legislation to domestic workers would be disappointed by employers’ lack of enthusiasm for complying with the law. For most of the twentieth century household workers were excluded from labor legislation. In contrast, after 1908 many women industrial workers enjoyed coverage of state minimum wage and maximum hours laws and many male workers won coverage of federal labor laws with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938. Domestic workers, however, had to wait until 1974 for the federal government to amend the FLSA to include household workers. Most of the progressive activists who lobbied for these legal changes expressed certainty that official recognition from government regulators was all domestic workers needed for their occupation to be treated like any other. The 1974 law’s supporters testified before Congress, insisting on the “determination and desire of the average American citizen to voluntarily obey the law.” Maybe they chose exaggerated optimism in order to push the amendment through Congress. Maybe they really believed that private families would not need any encouragement from government officials to obey the law.

In any case, they were wrong. Labor inspection techniques had emerged in the early twentieth century, pioneered by early twentieth-century women labor reformers, like those in the National Consumers’ League. In a period in which the government offered workers virtually no labor protections, these activists visited factories and retail shops and pressured the bosses to improve working conditions. When state and federal governments passed labor laws and opened their own labor departments, officials enforced the laws with inspection systems similar to those created by those earlier progressive labor reformers. This system is not one easily adapted to private homes. Domestic workers, because they work individually in thousands of different homes across the country, are a difficult labor force for labor officials to track.

In addition to an unwieldy enforcement mechanism, cultural ideas about the home militated against middle-class families welcoming government regulators into their homes. In fact, part of the reason that domestic workers had to wait so long for protective legislation was that the same women’s activists who had pioneered protective legislation for women working in industry were reluctant to apply similar labor standards to the workers in their own homes. Given this cultural and political resistance to government regulation of the home and an enforcement mechanism that is more suited to industry than private homes, it is perhaps no surprise that, today, only those who choose to run for public office worry about the risks of flouting labor laws.

But there is hope. In the 1930s, household workers who called for inclusion in state labor laws were not nearly as confident in the good faith of employers as middle-class activists would be in 1974. Instead, they hoped that workers would be empowered by labor laws to enforce their own labor standards. Dora Jones, the leader of New York’s Domestic Workers Union in the 1930s, believed that legislation would give the union, as she put it, “a new weapon to operate with.” Jones asserted that “once workers learn that they are protected by law, they are eager for organization that can prevent the violations they see going on.” The union could also, Jones argued, recruit more politically empowered members if the government could guarantee workers a minimum wage that they could use to pay union dues and shorter hours so they could attend meetings.

Today, Domestic Workers United, a union operating in New York since the year 2000, has managed to amass an influential membership of workers from across a wide spectrum of nationalities and backgrounds. They are working hard to reach out to undocumented workers, who have often been unwilling to report employers who underpay, overwork, harass, or abuse them for fear of attracting the attention of immigration authorities. Armed with new legislation like the laws recently passed in New York, Domestic Workers United may be more effective than Dora Jones and her union ever were. As the union gains new members, household employers may have to think twice about refusing to adhere to labor laws. The government probably won’t notice. But the union just might.

Vanessa H. May is assistant professor of history at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, and author of Unprotected Labor: Household Workers, Politics, and Middle-Class Reform in New York, 1870-1940. Read her previous guest post, “When the Workplace Is Someone Else’s Home.”