Domestic workers push labor rights bill
By Patrice O’Shaughnessy
Members of the Domestic Workers Justice Coalition, a group that works to organize several domestic worker unions, held a rally Saturday, March 4th, 2009.
Tuesday, Ana Ontiveros will not make her usual daily trip from the Bronx to her job as a housekeeper in Manhattan. Instead, she'll take a day off without pay and board a bus to Albany with dozens of other housekeepers, nannies and maids to rally the state Legislature for a domestic workers' Bill of Rights.
"They expect a lot of people to come to Albany," said Ontiveros, 36. "The farm workers are coming with us, and students who support us."
She said she has a good job, cleaning for a family, and sometimes baby-sitting if the nanny isn't there.
But she doesn't get sick days or overtime or medical benefits. She works 10 hours a day, for $12.50 an hour.
She has never been physically abused by employers, but she said, "I hear a lot of stories about people abusing workers, or they don't pay them, or fire them for no reason."
In 2007, she was part of a group of workers who went to the Long Island courthouse, where a wealthy couple was tried and convicted of beating and enslaving their housemaid, one of the most egregious cases to come to light in this nation.
"That happens," Ontiveros said. "Sometimes, you think in this country that can't happen."
The workers will call on the Legislature to pass the bill (A1470/S2311) to establish labor standards for the household workforce and prevent cases of abuse, such as that of a nanny named Patricia Francois.
Earlier this month, Francois announced she had filed a lawsuit against her former employers - an affluent Manhattan couple - for assault and battery and for not paying her overtime.
She claims the man gave her a black eye after she tried to stop him from yelling at his daughter.
She was aided in bringing the suit by Domestic Workers United, an advocacy group.
The organization says there are more than 200,000 nannies, housekeepers and caregivers in the New York City area, working out of the public eye, without legal protections offered to other workers, such as overtime pay, time off and health care.
The rally in the state capital is one of several events during the National Week of Action for domestic workers' rights. There will be rallies all over the state, and workers will gather in churches to push for the bill.
The legislation has moved out of the Assembly and Senate labor committees.
"Our job is not recognized like a real job," Ontiveros said. "We want to push Albany to pass the bill."
Ontiveros joined Domestic Workers United a couple of years ago. The group helped her to place an ad and find a job.
"I'm working because they helped me," Ontiveros said.
Ontiveros came here from Mexico City 17 years ago.
She worked in a factory at first, then worked as a school aide before becoming a housekeeper.
She and her husband have three children. Lately, he can't find work in construction, his trade.
Her two teenage sons go to Catholic high school, and her younger son attends Catholic grammar school.
"I'm working to send my sons to school," she said.
Of course, the recession has put a lot of these workers out on the street. I asked Ontiveros if even more will lose jobs if employers are required to pay overtime, medical benefits and other costs, and can't afford to have a housekeeper or nanny.
"Some are afraid people won't afford it and will fire them," she acknowledged.
"My boss, he really needs people to work for him, watch the kids. He has the money, and we are happy working. It's better to pay us good money, so we're happy with each other.
"My kids love me," she said of her charges. "If I go to another job, I know someone else will take care of them, but...." She paused, a catch in her throat.
"I love them."
But she must think of her own children.
"I want them to go to Catholic school. I want them to have things," she said.
So she will forgo a precious day's pay to risk bettering her job situation, to ensure a brighter future for her kids.