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Nannies and other domestic workers push for new rights

Seeking sick time, written contracts, minimum wage and other protections



Caitlin Heermans, center, who’s worked as a nanny for nine years, stands with other domestic workers for better job protections.

PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON

Any parent who’s employed a nanny knows that the relationship has the potential to be as complicated as it is essential. Leaving aside matters of personality fit, tricky situations can arise at any moment: What happens when your nanny gets sick? Or needs maternity leave? Or has an emergency that leaves you stranded?

But now put yourself in your nanny’s shoes. What if you were afraid of getting fired for calling in sick? What if you were harassed at work, or your boss tried to shortchange your paycheck, and you didn’t have anyone to turn to?

Bearing such issues in mind, a coalition that includes the nonprofit Working Washington, a handful of elected officials and a group of domestic workers kicked off a campaign in December to create the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which seeks to regulate labor standards for nannies, house cleaners, gardeners, home health aides, cooks — basically anyone working as an individual in another person’s home. The next step is to get Seattle City Council to create and vote on an ordinance.

Working Washington spokesman Sage Wilson said he thinks the ordinance will be introduced this spring. “We would expect it to move pretty quickly after that,” he adds.

It’s no coincidence domestic workers aren’t protected — they’re mostly women, and often people of color and immigrants, says Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who is helping to spearhead the effort along with Councilmembers Lorena González and Lisa Herbold.

“The individuals who are taking care of our kiddos, taking care of our elders, cleaning our homes, these are the workers who have been historically excluded from basic labor standards,” Mosqueda says. “We’re talking about overtime, minimum wage, protection from harassment, intimidation and assault…”

The main points of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights include:

  • Require written contracts for all domestic workers. The goal is to set up clear expectations on both sides, and to protect workers and enforce rights.
  • Ensure every domestic worker has the same labor protections as other workers, including state-mandated paid sick leave and Seattle’s $15 minimum wage.
  • Create a city commission, which would include domestic workers, to set industry standards for working conditions, benefits and other regulations.

“This is absolutely something we can act on in 2018 and act with urgency,” continues Mosqueda. “This is a critical time for us to be standing up for the most vulnerable, especially women.”

Caitlin Heermans, who lives on Seattle’s First Hill, has worked as a nanny and household manager for nine years. She’s heard countless horror stories from fellow nannies who haven’t been paid overtime, got fired for being pregnant or having health issues, or had to work even when they were sick because they couldn’t afford to miss a day.

“The work that nannies perform every day often requires putting the physical and emotional needs of others above their own,” says Heermans. “It is work that requires an endless amount of empathy and compassion. It is real work and should be treated as such.”

Michelle Riggs, a Bothell nanny who’s part of the campaign, concurs: “We’re not slaves, we’re not robots. We sometimes make mistakes or have emergencies that come up, and I think it’s important that parents understand that. We are here to help you, but you also have to help us by treating us like we’re people.”

So how can parents foster a smooth and fair working relationship with their nannies, starting today? Laura Scoccolo, founder of Nanny Parent Connection, says the most important thing is open communication and being clear about your expectations from the outset. Also, familiarizing yourself with industry standards..

For example, some parents might expect the nanny to clean while the child is napping. According to Scoccolo, that’s frowned upon, because nannies don’t get scheduled breaks and naptime is their time to regroup. As for housework, nannies can be expected to pick up toys in the living room, but not clean it. They should do any dishes used during the day, and may be asked to wash a child’s laundry, especially if it’s for an infant — so long as that’s been agreed upon beforehand.

Other best practices include: guaranteed hours, two weeks paid vacation (one week of the nanny’s choosing, one of the family’s choosing), sick pay, meeting minimum wage requirements and paying above the table. (For help crunching numbers, there’s a paycheck calculator on NannyParentConnection.com).

When it comes to pay, the average rate in the greater Seattle region is about $19 an hour for one kid; within the city it ranges from $20 to $25 an hour. That number depends on the nanny’s level of experience, whether she has degrees and certifications and if she’s taking on extra household duties.

Last September, Riggs started nannying for a family with two boys. She says at first the family seemed down to earth. But once she started, they wanted her to do all of the dishes, cooking and cleaning, on top of setting a curriculum for at-home play and taking the kids to their activities.

“As a nanny, you’re supposed to be working with the kids. That’s your main priority,” Riggs says. She left that position in January and has since found a better situation.

“I really wish that parents would understand we love the kids just as much as they do,” Riggs says. “And I want them to understand we need to make a living wage just as much as they do.”

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