New York nannies will get overtime and vacation pay under a new state law called the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The law covers nannies, mothers’ helpers, housekeepers, companions to the elderly and other non-family members employed in homes to provide domestic services.
The law sets a 40-hour work week for standard domestic workers and a 45-hour workweek for live-in employees. Workers get at least one day off a week. Overtime pay of time-and-a half must be paid for any work done beyond these limits. After a year of service, workers are entitled to three paid days off.
The law also contains anti-discrimination provisions to protect domestic help from sexual abuse and harassment. It also directs the NY Labor Commissioner to report on the practicality of permitting domestic workers to organize for purposes of collective bargaining.
Famous books and movies tell stories of people kept locked away and out of public view: Jane Eyre, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Phantom of the Opera. Recently a real estate agent from California's East Bay area was convicted of forced labor and other federal charges for enslaving a nanny from Peru.
California Woman Convicted
In October 2009, a federal jury in San Francisco convicted Mabelle de la Rosa Dann of forced labor and other federal charges. She forced a woman to work for her round-the-clock for no pay and under abusive conditions. The nanny had previously worked as a housekeeper for the woman in her native Peru.
She was promised a better life in a large house with her own private bedroom and bathroom. She was also told her salary would be $600 per month once the cost of her plane ticket was repaid.
Instead, the nanny was never paid. For almost two years she worked seven days a week, taking care of the woman's three children in an apartment. She was cut off from all Spanish-language media, her food was rationed, and was subjected to the woman's rages and abusive behavior.
The nanny finally reported these prison-like conditions to personnel at the elementary school where two of the children attended. She'd been unable to escape because Dann took the nanny's passport, visa and Peruvian ID with her to work each day.
Labor Laws Prohibit Forced Labor
Dann probably could've been prosecuted under some California state laws, but because of the international aspect of the case she was charged under federal laws prohibiting forced labor. The case is a grim reminder of the unknown perils facing nannies or caretakers alone in an unfamiliar country.
The safest route for nannies or live-in housekeepers is caution. Only obtain positions through an agency so they can track wages and provide other protections. Arrange for an emergency contact system, and leave copies of your critical documents (passport and visa) with trusted friends or family. If you don't have these options, don't be afraid to speak up.
Contact your state or federal office of the Department of Labor about fair and lawful compensation. US federal and state labor laws allow certain exceptions to the minimum wage laws. These areas include agricultural work, restaurant work and child care. Still, protections are available and information is usually available online or by a toll-free number.
What Is False Imprisonment?
Many states have laws which make holding someone captive a crime. However, the hurdles victims face include the risk of deportation if they've entered or remained in the US without proper authorization. The language barrier will also be a hurdle for those struggling to describe the conditions they were living under.
People who enslave others are also at risk for civil suits under legal theories such as "false imprisonment." The victim would have to show they were being held against their will, unjustly, and they suffered the loss of liberty and other harm (such as emotional distress or psychological injury) as a result.
Human trafficking for work or sex is a big problem across the US. Not only in urban areas, but in rural areas where people are even more cut-off from people they may know and the services that can help them. Since the nanny was working off the books and to pay off her plane ticket this could be a case of human trafficking.
Make sure if you suspect this happening to someone you know, or someone you know is taking advantage of another person, let the authorities know – anonymously if necessary.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can I be forced to work for someone for no wages or rights?
- Are the forced labor laws the same in other countries?
- Does this apply to parents who make their children do chores or other work around the house?