Who make up today’s “Help” in America?

Posted on October 23, 2011


With the success and controversy over The Help, more attention has been given to those now employed as domestics. For just as African Americans once were overwhelmingly the group carrying bags, doormen hailing cabs, watching children, cooking and cleaning, primary caretakers of the elderly, as well as a variety of maintenance positions, men and women of color from all over the world now hold these jobs.

As I searched for information on the division between “Nannies” and the domestic workers that were referenced by the organization Domestic Workers United (http://www.domesticworkersunited.org/), much like the novel The Help perceived black maids as unorganized and in need of a leader, many Americans may not realize how the fight for worker’s rights mirrors the civil rights movement.

Unidentified Maid feeding a child

According to Vanessa May’s article on the UNC Press Blog:”In Jackson, Mississippi, the setting for The Help, black maids went on strike in 1866 for higher wages. In 1934 New York, black women, led by an African American domestic worker named Dora Jones, formed the Domestic Workers Union and affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. They supported women like Bessie Brown in court. They wrote union contracts mandating paid vacations, an eight-hour day, and a living wage. They lobbied the New York State legislature for labor laws. In 1968, Dorothy Bolden, who had worked in white homes in Atlanta since she was eight years old, formed the National Domestic Workers Union of America. Under her leadership the union increased wages for Atlanta’s domestic workers and won a union charter.”

Link: http://uncpressblog.com/2011/08/24/historians-on-the-help-vanessa-may-and-rebecca-sharpless-respond/


In the 1880s, a grassroots collective of Black washerwomen turned out by the hundreds to protest working conditions in Atlanta.

“The 1881 Washerwomen’s Strike in Atlanta was one of most successful direct action protests carried out by African Americans in the late 19th century. In July 1881 a group of 20 black washerwomen met in a church in Summerhill and established a labor organization called the Washing Society. Before the month was over, 3,000 women, including some white washerwomen, went on strike for better wages and more autonomy in their work. Black churches, mutual aid societies, and fraternal organizations throughout the city contributed both moral and financial support for the women’s strike. The strike established a precedent for other labor protests in the city, most notably the successful Scripto Factory Strike launched by black and white women and men in 1964.”

The article sites this book as an additional reference on the Washerwoman strike – Tera Hunter, To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997).

Link – http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2006/0611/0611ann5.cfm

Here’s an actual account from an African American maid in the early 1900s:

A Negro Nurse
More Slavery at the South
From The Independent, 72 (Jan. 25, 1912): 196-200. New York: Published for the proprietors, 1912.

 ” . . . I frequently work from fourteen to sixteen hours a day. I am compelled to by my contract, which is oral only, to sleep in the house. I am allowed to go home to my own children, the oldest of whom is a girl of 18 years, only once in two weeks, every other Sunday afternoon–even then I’m not permitted to stay all night. I not only have to nurse a little white child, now eleven months old, but I have to act as playmate, or “handy-andy,” not to say governess, to three other children in the house, the oldest of whom is only nine years of age. I wash and dress the baby two or three times each day; I give it its meals, mainly from a bottle; I have to put it to bed each night; and, in addition, I have to get up and attend to its every call between midnight and morning. If the baby falls to sleep during the day, as it has been trained to do every day about eleven o’clock, I am not permitted to rest.

A maid at work

It’s “Mammy, do this,” or “Mammy, do that,” or “Mammy, do the other,” from my mistress, all the time. So it is not strange to see “Mammy” watering the lawn with the garden hose, sweeping the sidewalk, mopping the porch and halls, mopping the porch and halls, helping the cook, or darning stockings. Not only so, but I have to put the other three children to bed each night as well as the baby, and I have to wash them and dress them each morning. I don’t know what it is to go to church; I don’t know what it is to go to a lecture or entertainment of anything of the kind; I live a treadmill life; and I see my own children only when they happen to see me on the streets when I am out with the children, or when my children come to the “yard” to see me, which isn’t often, because my white folks don’t like to see their servants’ children hanging around their premises. . . You might as well say that I’m on duty all the time–from sunrise to sunrise, every day in the week. I am the slave, body and soul, of this family. And what do I get for this work–this lifetime bondage? The pitiful sum of ten dollars a month! And what am I expected to do with these ten dollars? With this money I’m expected to pay my house rent, which is four dollars per month, for a little house of two rooms, just big enough to turn around in; and I’m expected, also, to feed and clothe myself and three children. ”

© This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.

Link: http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/negnurse/negnurse.html

More real life accounts can be found in this post: https://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/2011/07/06/they-love-us-sez-who/

In the building of America, immigrants held the positions blacks were also relegated to. One famous and sad case concerns Mary Mallon, a cook who was imprisoned twice, (the final time for over twenty-years) as a healthy carrier of Typhoid fever:

” . . .So why is Mary Mallon so infamously remembered as “Typhoid Mary”? Why was she the only healthy carrier isolated for life? These questions are hard to answer. Judith Leavitt, author of Typhoid Mary, believes that her personal identity contributed to the extreme treatment she received from health officials. Leavitt claims that there was prejudice against Mallon not only for being Irish and a woman, but also for being a domestic servant, not having a family, not being considered a “bread earner,” having a temper, and not believing in her carrier status.12

During her life, Mary Mallon experienced extreme punishment for something in which she had no control and, for whatever reason, has gone down in history as the evasive and malicious “Typhoid Mary.”

12 – cited from the novel Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996, pgs 96-125  Author Leavitt, Judith Walzer

Link: http://history1900s.about.com/od/1900s/a/typhoidmary_3.htm

But what of today’s domestics? Are they being paid a livable wage? And who predominately make up this workforce? In this post, I hope to examine these as well as other questions.

PLEASE NOTE: I’m still refining this blog post, but you’re welcome to read what I’ve got so far:

The Domestic Workers United Logo

On August 31, 2010, a hard fought six year struggle culminated in the the passage of the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. At a January 2011 meeting of several organizations concerned with the rights of domestic workers, , Ai-jen Poo, the Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, stated “. . . in this country, there are 2.5 million domestic workers doing the work that we call “the work that makes all other work possible.”

Link to full article : http://www.organizingupgrade.com/2011/01/lessons-from-domestic-workers-victory/

Key provisions in the Bill include:

Work Hours

  • establishes 8 hours as a legal day’s work
  • overtime at the rate of 1 ½ of the regular rate of pay after 40 hours for live-out domestic workers and 44 for live-in domestic workers

Day of Rest

  • one day of rest in each calendar week (should try to coincide with a worker’s day of worship)
  • overtime pay if a worker agrees to work on her day of rest

Paid Days Off

  • After one year of employment, entitled to 3 paid days off

Workplace Protection

  • Protection against workplace discrimination based race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, marital status, and domestic violence victim status
  • Protection against sexual harassment by employer
  • Protection against harassment based on gender, race, national origin, and religion
  • Covers full-time and part-time (pending legislative revision) domestic workers for temporary disability benefits

Link: http://www.domesticworkersunited.org/campaigns.php

This was a victory for the domestic workers of New York State. But not all workers in America are covered. As The New York Times reported:

“In the United States, domestic workers are covered by minimum-wage laws, but they are excluded from federal statutes on occupational health, overtime and the right to organize.”

Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/world/domestic-workers-convention-may-be-landmark.html

California became the second state in America to pass a law protecting workers. Prior to that, Anayansi Prado’s independent film Maid in America explores the private lives of three Hispanic domestics in that state. Here’s an excerpt from the PBS series Independent Lens on Prado’s film:

Las Nannies

“In Southern California, the fantasy of a “Mary Poppins” live-in caregiver is replaced by the reality of las nannies, the “Spanglish” term given to the thousands of Latina child-minders employed by middle- and upper-class Angelenos. USC Sociology Professor Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo writes in her book Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence (University of California Press, 2001) that there are over 100,000 domestic workers in Los Angeles. And even in the best of situations, the employee/employer relationship is fraught with uncertainty and guilt.

In MAID IN AMERICA, we meet the Marburys, an upper middle-class African American family whose son, Mickey, has been cared for by their employee Telma since he was an infant. With a demanding career, Karol Marbury is openly grateful for Telma’s help, and Telma loves Mickey as her own son, but there are some uneasy undercurrents: Karol can’t help but be uncomfortable when Mickey refers to Telma as his mother, while Telma’s love for Mickey is tempered by the fact that she has children of her own who don’t get the attention she lavishes on Mickey.

Even in the best of situations, las nannies’ lives can be hard in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. As sociologist Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo notes, “…because their homes are located in remote hillsides, suburban enclaves or in gated communities, live-in nanny/housekeepers are effectively restricted from participating in anything resembling social life, family life of their own or public culture.”

Link: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/maidinamerica/domesticas.html

One of the most visible organizations in the the struggle for jobs equality in the east is Domestic Workers United.org

The Domestic Workers United Logo

From their website:

Founded in 2000, Domestic Workers United [DWU] is an organization of Caribbean, Latina and African nannies, housekeepers, and elderly caregivers in New York, organizing for power, respect, fair labor standards and to help build a movement to end exploitation and oppression for all.

Over the last 10 years, DWU has laid a strong foundation for the transformation of the domestic work industry by building a grassroots membership base of 4500 workers, establishing the first Nanny Training Course, and by winning over half a million dollars in unpaid wages for exploited domestic workers. DWU also produced the first comprehensive industry-wide report entitled “Home is Where the Work Is: Inside New York’s Domestic Work Industry,” along with leading the formation of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, assembling a model multi-sector coalition through grassroots-led campaigns, and passing groundbreaking and historic legislation at both the city and state levels in support of rights and recognition for domestic workers. In 2010, DWU and its allies brought their power to bear when the nation’s first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights was finally signed into law in New York. New York domestic workers are now guaranteed basic rights and protections, including paid days off, overtime, and protection from discrimination.”

And they’re out in force with the Occupy Wallstreet protesters.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance is affiliated with “33 groups representing about 2.5 million domestic workers in 11 states and 17 major cities.”

Link: http://www.inthesetimes.com/working/entry/7296/afl-cio_and_domestic_workers_form_historic_partnership/

Domestic Workers.org

Here’s a listing of their members:

San Francisco – Bay Area

Mujeres Unidas y Activas


San Francisco Day Labor Program Women’s Collective of La Raza Centro Legal

Filipino for Advocates for Justice

Centro Laboral de Graton / Graton Day Labor Center

Southern California

Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA)

Pilipino Workers’ Center of Southern California


San Diego Day Laborers and Household Workers Association

Washington, DC Metropolitan Area

CASA de Maryland

New York

Damayan Migrant Workers Association

Domestic Workers United

Unity Housecleaners Cooperative

Las Mujeres de Santa Maria
The Hospitality Center of Staten Island

Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees

Andolan (organizing South Asian Workers)


Beyond Care Coop

Cidadao Global


Houston Interfaith Worker Justice

Southwest Workers’ Union


CASA Latina

Centro Humanitario

New England

Fuerza Laboral

Vida Verde


Massachussetts Association of Professional Nannies (MAPN)

Brazilian Immigrant Center


Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center


Washtenaw County Worker Center


Colectivo de Mujeres Tejiendo Sueños y Luchando

Link: http://www.domesticworkers.org/members

Maids step out of the shadows

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

“. . . As many as 100 million people worldwide work in domestic services, according to the International Labour Organization. In the U.S., an estimated 2.5 million people work in and around the home, as housekeepers, nannies, grounds keepers, cooks and more. Most are women, and most are immigrants. In a recent survey of more than 500 domestic workers by Domestic Workers United, 99 percent were foreign-born, 76 percent were non-U.S. citizens, and 93 percent were female.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for these workers is setting their own boundaries – for payment, the work they’re willing to do and the hours they’re willing to do it.”

“The question is, 50 years after The Help takes place, why we still don’t have protection for domestic workers,” Perez-Boston says. “There is no minimum wage. They are excluded from overtime protection, and they’re among the most likely to be working overtime hours. Sometimes they sleep in the same room as a baby, in case the baby cries. … And yet a tutor is paid well at an hourly rate. So is a personal chef. And a dog walker.”

Read the full article here:


The Color of Help

Workers of Color Dominate Domestic Services but Lack Union Rights

by Kyle Boyd

“An estimated 2.5 million people work every year in domestic services, helping us take care of our children, cleaning our homes, and caring for our aging parents and grandparents, but without protections or basic workers’ rights. Sexual harassment, racial oppression, and economic exploitation have all resulted from domestic workers’ omission from federal and state protection laws, which is why the struggle for domestic workers’ rights is tied to the history of racial discrimination in our country.”

Link:  http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2011/06/color_of_help.html

Times Haven’t Changed for ‘The Help’ of Today

By Grecia Lima WeNews commentator

Friday, August 19, 2011

“After one screening of “The Help” in San Francisco, a 19-year-old woman named Karina, who has been a domestic worker for four years, addressed the audience. She spoke passionately about the vulnerability of today’s domestic workers, who often face deeply exploitative conditions, unpaid wages, a lack of overtime and paid vacation or even physical and emotional abuse.

Karina’s testimony brought some in the audience to tears. One viewer approached her afterward to say that watching “The Help,” and then listening to Karina, had motivated her to extend job benefits to the woman she recently hired to clean her home.

“Today, domestic workers are still predominantly women of color, often immigrants. The vulnerability they face hasn’t changed. Nor has their lack of legal protections.

Link: http://www.womensenews.org/story/equal-payfair-wage/110818/times-havent-changed-the-help-today

Valuing Domestic Work

Written by Dr. Premilla Nadasen and Tiffany Williams. Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women.

This completed study in PDF form is a must read:

Link: http://bcrw.barnard.edu/wp-content/nfs/reports/NFS5-Valuing-Domestic-Work.pdf

While people of color make up a large segment of those underpaid, why have recent novels, TV and Hollywood churned out pop productions showing a different view of who make up these positions?

Books like The Nanny Diaries, and its sequel Nanny Returns as well as Suzanne Hanson’s true life account as a live-in maid for Michael Ortiz, in the tell all novel You’ll Never Nanny in this town again may make for entertaining peep shows of comeupance, but one thing both underpaid domestics and higher end nannies face is a class system that far too often devalues their assistance.

The high end positions are sometimes titled differently. They’re “Au Pairs” with many of the women possessing college degrees, and able to list subjects such as Psychology on their resume. For their education and prior work experience they can command top dollars. Yet even with a college degree, these Nannies may still face the sting of class discrimination.

The Nanny Diaries movie poster. Scarlett Johansson was the star of the film


UK and Ireland movie Poster

I can’t help but notice the difference between The Nanny Diaries and  The Help poster. Scarlett Johansson of The Nanny Diaries isn’t sharing space with the other female star, Laura Linney, unlike how Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer appear to look like co-stars in a film whose subject matter dealt with ‘the help.”

In this 2006 article from USA today, it talks about “high end” Nannies making six figures, but it’s important to note that this isn’t typical of most paid domestics in America (items in bold are my doing):

“Why do college-educated women become nannies? For one, at the high end the money is comparable to, or better than, teaching. Trained educators often find more satisfaction in the development of two or three children over several years than they do facing a fresh crop of 30 students every fall.

In addition to college degrees, many high-end nannies know how to swim, are certified in CPR and regularly attend nanny seminars to hone their skills. Most at the high end have been through exhaustive background checks and psychological exams.

Movie stars such as Angelina Jolie, mother of a newborn, may be the most famous employers of nannies. But celebrities often prefer nannies who don’t speak English because they don’t want bathrobe secrets leaking to the National Enquirer, says LaRowe, who makes $80,000 a year working for a CEO in Boston.

LaRowe says she has talked to celebrities and the nannies of celebrities. She says that celebrities will brag to each other about how little they pay their nannies. CEOs brag about their nanny qualifications. CEOs manage people for a living, pay the best and are “fabulous to work for,” LaRowe says.

Still, in the best neighborhoods there are many nannies, typically uneducated immigrants, working for substandard wages, says Pat Cascio, president of the International Nanny Association.

But fewer CEOs take the inexpensive road because they are more sensitive to legal and tax issues and understand the risk of being sued for exposing unsuspecting young women to a “harsh work environment,” says Joe Keeley, who is franchising a company of nanny agencies in major cities called College Nannies & Tutors.”


To Beverly Hills ‘Housewives,’ their ‘struggle’ is relative

More nannies than children, private jets, $50,000 birthday parties — it’s exhausting being wealthy.

By Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times  

October 28, 2010

“This is going to sound crazy, don’t judge me” before informing viewers that she employs four nannies for her two children. In the same episode, the women fly in a private jet to a catch a Sacramento Kings home game. Later in the season, Armstrong will throw a $50,000 birthday party for her 4-year-old daughter.


Is it “nice work, if you can get it” or “more risk than reward?”

I also must point out that having the ability to choose to be a nanny, au pair, or maid  versus having elite clients seek out your services is wholly different that finding this as the only job you can land. And this may be what new immigrants in U.S. face.

While The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Supernannies and the movies like The Nanny Diaries show women in domestic positions working for Well-to-do families and the powerbrokers of Hollywood to Wall Street, as the article by Kyle Boyd asserts, the current make-up of domestics are women of color. And the fight for pay equivalent to the long hours they put in, as well as basic workers rights continue.

Huffington Post Article titled

The Nanny Diaries: A Caribbean Version

by Atty. Arlene Roberts


Freda’s story
“One day, I got sick. I was sweating and shivering, and I fell on the couch. I needed to go home, but she said, ‘Freda, I have a meeting, take two Tylenols.’

Domestic workers are not supposed to get sick, you’re not supposed to take time off. When I needed to go to the doctor, I would come to her a month ahead and my employer would write it down and say, ‘I’ll see what I can do for you.’ Sometimes she would say, ‘Do you have a friend who can fill in for you?’ Then, she wouldn’t pay her — I’d have to pay her myself.”

See other accounts here:

It’s What They Asked For

Published: October 19, 2011

Alabama’s new anti-immigrant law, the nation’s harshest, went into effect last month (a few provisions have been temporarily blocked in federal court), and it is already reaping a bitter harvest of dislocation and fear.

Read the full article here:


To be continued. . .

Posted in: Blog