It’s Time to Care for Your Caregivers: The Invisible Backbone of New York City Families

Janine Rogers, a nanny I connected with in a caregiver support group, works 50 hours a week. She is a single mother, a Jamaican immigrant, and a nanny for one of New York City’s elite. After being asked to stay late for the 5th time this week, she returned home late to her daughter once again. She is struggling to make ends meet. After all those extra hours she put in, the family expects her not to want extra pay. If she complains about working conditions, they find any excuse they can to dock pay. For example, if a child gets sick or the family comes home early, they may decide to dock her pay since she’s not actively working even though she’s still “on-call,” and it goes against her salaried contract. If she threatens to leave, the family makes her feel guilty or offers false promises of financial consistency to get her to stay. I know, this story seems crazy, but it’s the reality of many nannies and caregivers across New York City’s elite network.

Sandra Buffet, a nanny who just quit her job for a wealthy family, has endured a miserable workplace for the sake of her children for the past several years. Her abusive male boss caused her to lose her confidence even after working with children for nearly 20 years. After being rebuked for telling the children their parents’ names, the father had a full-on meltdown. After letting the children play with a piece of rock they found in their backyard, the father reprimanded her for having no common sense. She never received any positive feedback from the father and struggled to cope with the frequent abuse. She loved the kids dearly, but she just couldn’t handle it.

New York City is notorious for its plethora of caregivers. It’s rare that you won’t see babies pushed down the street by middle-aged or older foreign women. It’s also not uncommon for the dementia-stricken elderly to have live-in companions. What you don’t see is the sweat, tears, frustration, and abuse that often goes on behind the scenes when families neglect their hired caregivers. Nannies struggle for a fair wage, while caregivers struggle to convince their elderly companions — abandoned by their family — that their life is valuable. According to a 2017 survey of informal caregivers by the NYC Department of Aging, there are 1.3 million unpaid caregivers in New York City. An AARP report increases this number to 2.5 million unpaid caregivers when you include family members caring for loved ones. These numbers only represent those who came forward. Millions more are simply underpaid like Janine. However, lack of payment seems to be the least of caregivers’ problems. Labor abuse plagues caregivers as elite families continue to push personal boundaries, break labor laws, and fail to provide clear and consistent job requirements.

Unfortunately, labor abuse committed against immigrants is especially common and difficult to monitor. The au pair program is a prime example. Established under the guise of a mutually beneficial cultural exchange, an au pair is a helper from a foreign country living with a host family. Typically, au pairs share the family’s responsibilities, including housework and childcare, while receiving a monetary allowance. One of my close friends from Brazil, Paola O., was an au pair for her first few years in America. She says, “The family treated me like their slave.” The family forced her to work more than 50 hours per week unpaid and with little to no personal time. Her host family constantly berated her over not doing exactly as they wanted. Keep in mind she was fresh out of high school and not a professional caregiver. Desperate to study and afford to live in the United States, Paola endured strenuous labor and verbal abuse that exceeded her role as an au pair.

According to a 2015 internal analysis of the program by the U.S. Department of State, there were 3500 reported incidents that year from 15 designated sponsors. Two of the most common reasons for complaint were disagreement over work hours and duties and inadequate childcare. “58 complaints [explicitly] indicated that host families required au pairs to work more than 45 hours per week or 10 hours per day.” According to the International Labor Recruitment Working Group, the abuse begins at recruitment. While au pairs are meant to have a small allowance in exchange for their work on top of room and board, many often leave in debt due to families and/or au pair companies charging “recruitment fees,” which can range up to $3000. Even in the absence of fees, au pairs make slave wages.

On average, many au pair companies set wages at $195.75 per week for about 45 hours of work — an illegal yet often permissed act. In 2013, the Senate debated a bill to prohibit recruitment fees, but this bill was ultimately turned down after au pair companies lobbied against it. There have been several lawsuits spearheaded by au pairs, but states often don’t enforce minimum wages since au pairs are visiting under a cultural exchange visa and exchanging their help for the opportunity to live in America. Some agencies have even gone as far as to counter sue lawmakers, making the argument that au pairs aren’t actually domestic workers.

Young people are giving up their health, sanity, and livelihood for the sake of coming to America, and the government could care less. This abuse exists for citizens and immigrants alike.

As a near full-time live-in caregiver for a 90-year-old woman with dementia, I’ve experienced the unspoken abuse firsthand. In the initial job offering, my duties were to assist my companion with physical activities, dressing, meals, and other daily tasks in addition to light housekeeping. The position has exceeded my expectations and the guidelines. I am my companion’s complete emotional, spiritual, and sometimes even medical support line. During times when my companion wakes early and goes to bed late, I am expected to not charge overtime if my companion sleeps in one day that week. In contrast, if an employee goes to work at an office or restaurant, it doesn’t matter if there are no customers or meetings first thing in the morning. They are compensated for their time because they have to be there and other work gets done.

The family also expects me to pay for my own food and communal toiletries. Where exactly does the family expect me to get money to pay for these things if I am being underpaid for my work? My employer said the position would provide room and board, including food, in exchange for 20 hours of labor. After taking the position, the family changed full room and board to partial room and board. I would also have to pay for any meal not explicitly prepared for my companion. The family also expected me not to want any time off. In a meeting about holiday expectations, I proposed vacation time, and the family’s response was “that’s an expense for us.” I was initially told that one week paid-time-off was the norm.

When my companion was experiencing ongoing pain and a potential medical emergency, her daughter ignored our reports and proceeded to ask for assistance with a feral cat rescue project. During this whole debacle, I was forced to work on my off day when the daughter of my companion asked another caregiver on duty to help catch feral cats and make a cat photo album after she left for what was supposed to be a quick grocery run. I was absolutely furious. How could someone be so out of it that she would be consumed with catching feral cats while her 90- year-old mother was experiencing a medical emergency?

In some ways, I can sympathize with families who take on caregivers. Right now, families — and caregivers — are coping with a global pandemic. They have lost jobs, loved ones, and taken on the unusual emotional burden of isolation. I understand that families carry the fear of something happening to their children if things don’t go exactly as planned. However, emotional turmoil is no excuse for mistreating your employees. Every human experiences trauma and inevitable personal problems. There must be a line between personal and professional life, especially when someone is working in your home and caring for your loved ones.

However, none of this takes away from the tremendous benefit some caregivers experience. Many of New York’s elite go above and beyond to care for their nannies and caregivers. In my time as a nanny for a wealthy doctor couple on the Upper East Side, I had the most pleasant opportunities. The family maintained consistent professional communication, provided emergency contacts, paid on time, and provided the added benefit of tips on top of their already above minimum wage rate. There are many families out there who truly treat the people caring for their loved ones with absolute dignity and respect — if only the less considerate class of families would take notes.

Unfortunately, my story isn’t unique. Thousands of underrepresented caregivers and nannies could be suffering in silence for a fear of losing their job. I’m an American citizen with rights, but what does an immigrant being paid under the table do when her family’s at risk? Who will defend Janine, Paola, and others like them?

Legal precedent has shown that defending immigrants with little rights can seem almost impossible. However, labor laws do exist for all workers. If only legislators would enforce these for those working under precarious circumstances. For now, I hope families will take into consideration the lives of their employees. If families and caregivers work together to establish clear boundaries and adhere to labor laws, work environments could improve for families and those caring for their loved ones alike.

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