It’s the time of year when you might see at least one article about “how much should you give the doorman/nanny/housekeeper” for a holiday tip but, because you scrub your own floors, rush home from work to pick up your children at school and open your own door (while holding onto a few bags of groceries and your child), you don’t read more than the headline.
Few Americans today have live-in servants. Those wealthy Americans who do and are calculating the holiday tip for their nannies, dog walkers, drivers, etc. would very likely not to refer to them as “servants” even though they are just that, as Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Cay Johnston writes in Al Jazeera.
The difference is that today’s servants are “outsourced” and are domestic (from the Latin word domus, “house”) in name only. As Johnston explains, even though domestic workers are paid relatively more than their counterparts a century ago, they end up earning less.
Here’s why: 1 in 45 urban American families had live-in servants in the 1930s, before the start of the Great Depression. Citing a century-old book about the etiquette of hiring servants, Johnston notes that, in 1910, a household book earned an average of $10 a week, the equivalent of $235 per week today. Under the federal minimum wage for 40 hours, a cook today would make $290 a week.
Nonetheless, while the 2013-minimum wage cook makes $55 extra than their 1910 counterpart, Johnston argues that they are actually worse off due to the costs of transportation (which can take up about a third of their pay) and of rent and food; live-in servants had both of the latter provided for them. Plus, the live-in servants of 1910 did not pay taxes. In contrast, Johnston says
… [a] 2013 cook pays 7.65 percent of his or her income in Social Security taxes as well as income taxes on more than a third of his pay, assuming full-time work every week of the year. For a single person, that’s about $29 of that $55 raise deducted for taxes.
60 percent of domestic workers spend half their income on housing and a fifth run out of food every month. If they’re making $290 a week, there’s not much left for basic expenses.
Johnston focuses on domestic workers’ wages without going into detail about the disadvantages of workers living under the same roof as their employers from a lack of privacy and separation from true families. But his point that American workers are getting shortchanged under the current system is undeniable.
More and more, Johnston argues that “prosperous American families” are adopting “the same approach to wages for servants as big successful companies, hiring freelance outside contractors for all sorts of functions — from child care and handyman chores to gardening and cleaning work — to reduce costs.” Just as many companies — notably, fast food coroporations — hire workers for just enough hours that they are considered part-time and not eligible for benefits, so is the 1 percent of American families who hires domestic workers seeking ways to cut corners as much as possible.
It’s very much for employers’ advantage to contract out for services. As workers don’t, or rather can’t, live too near their place of employment, outsourcing is also to their employers’ advantage: the hardships that workers face are kept out of sight and mind. They may not be called servants but, in many ways, today’s workers arguably have it worse.
Currently, domestic workers in the United States currently don’t have the right to rest periods and collective bargaining. In a few parts of the country, domestic workers have been gaining much-needed protections. In September, California governor Jerry Brown signed a bill of rights for domestic workers. The number of hours that certain domestic work employees work must now be regulated; they are also to receive an overtime compensation rate. The bill, AB 241, is just a start.
An earlier version of the bill had included standards for meal and rest breaks and sleeping periods; it also called for paid vacation for individuals who had been employed for more than a year in the same private household; as Care2′s Edwina Duenas wrote, these measures were left out of the final version of the bill.
I certainly hope that those who work as nannies, housekeepers, gardeners and in other jobs are getting generous tips this holiday season. Even more, let’s keep up the push in 2014 for more, for all, domestic workers to gain the protections that they do not simply deserve, but have more than earned their right to have.
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