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Invisible no longer: I’m a nanny and finally, I have the protections I need

Members of the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance and Councilmember Helen Gym gathered inside City Council chambers on Oct. 31 prior to the Law and Government Committee’s passage of the Philadelphia Domestic Workers Bill of Rights which goes into effect May 1, 2020. (AL DÍA News)

Members of the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance and Councilmember Helen Gym gathered inside City Council chambers on Oct. 31 prior to the Law and Government Committee’s passage of the Philadelphia Domestic Workers Bill of Rights which goes into effect May 1, 2020. (AL DÍA News)

As a professional nanny, I am proud to be one of 16,000 house cleaners, caregivers, and nannies in Philadelphia. We do essential and life-sustaining work, from caring for children while their parents are at work, to cleaning and disinfecting homes, to looking after older loved ones. Despite this, we have been excluded from almost all labor rights and protections. This goes back to the 1930s New Deal labor laws because our work was historically performed by enslaved Black women.

All of this changes on International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day, when the Philadelphia Domestic Workers Bill of Rights goes into effect.

Philadelphia’s domestic workers are primarily Black and/or immigrant women who live from gig to gig. While I’m fortunate to have an employer who provides paid time off, I haven’t always been so lucky. Domestic workers face widespread wage theft, harassment, lack of benefits, and no job security. These injustices have existed for decades, but so has the movement for domestic worker justice. Dorothy Bolden, the mother of our movement, started organizing following an arrest in the 1940s after she refused to stay late to wash dishes for a white woman. Almost 80 years later, domestic work is still invisible and undervalued.

The coronavirus pandemic makes the timing of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights critical. The vast majority of us have lost all our work, don’t qualify for state or federal relief programs, and don’t have paid time off or health insurance.  We are excluded from Philadelphia’s Paid Sick Leave Ordinance. Those without work are forced to decide between skipping meals or face homelessness. Additionally, many who continue to work do so without personal protective equipment, putting themselves and their families at risk.

When we go back to work, we will not return to the  “normal” pre-virus. Thanks to the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, we will now have the legal right to a written contract, meal and rest breaks, discrimination protections, time off for live-in workers, notice of termination, and protections from retaliation and labor trafficking when we exercise our rights. Later in the year, all domestic workers will have a minimum of 40 hours of paid time off annually. Finally, we won a Domestic Workers Task Force that includes domestic workers so we have an on-going voice in City Hall. These rights are for all domestic workers, regardless of immigration status.

As a nanny, I fought hard for this law alongside my domestic worker colleagues with the National Domestic Workers Alliance – PA Chapter. For over a year, we knocked on the doors of City Hall to win rights, recognition, and respect for our profession.  I’m proud that this International Workers’ Day, Philly domestic workers take our place in a long line of labor leaders who have won groundbreaking workplace rights – but it’s more than a law. It’s recognition that we – essential workers who make all other work possible – are critical members of the Philadelphia community and will not be invisibilized anymore.

Stephanie Barrale is a nanny and a leader with the National Domestic Workers Alliance – PA Chapter, the leading voice for dignity and fairness for millions of domestic workers in the United States.

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