People Still Have Servants, But Now They Outsource Them

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.

Photo via Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Nancy Black
Nancy Black4 years ago

Generally those who are servants are from other countries and are not citizens. Thus they will take any job and wage to support and their families. There is a reason the rich are rich; they hold on to their money. They aren't generous employers. The reason unions became powerful in this country was tha. t the workers were treated poorly. Employers aren't to willing to share the goodies; they believe that if you don't come from wealth, have an education, special training, come from a certain social status, you are not equal to them That[s just the way the cookie crumbles. That's GOP thinking. Remember Mitt the Twit and his 49% of freeloaders of those who were not in the top 1 to 2%. GOP really believes that and so do the very wealthy.

Mary B.
Mary B4 years ago

David, you just laid out exactly what I said. You're living in a stereotype of concepts that aren't even active because the present situation is not set up to make it possible, except for maybe a few elites.Sounds like you're telling us that what was called Maxism in the past, IS 'free market capitalism'as it exists today.But Most people do not have liberty of if movement in and out of jobs, nor the time to innovate like they could if survival weren't at the forefront. When busnesses, large or small can pay their workers a living wage, pay for cleaning up their own messes, not pollute the air, soil or water, not destroy landscapes, then we'll be on the same page. And this goes for any 'clean energy' or organic farm who just stops useing chemicals, destroying natural environments for it's wind farms, exc. as well. They are just the same kind of people as the ones in power now who think if they change clothes and talk 'Green Speak' we won't
recognize them. It's the change of consciousness I'm looking for.And by the way, I favor a tax on consumption, instead of income. The Fair has a good plan the last time I checked.

Joanne Dixon
Joanne D4 years ago

David F, somebody needs to read some history. Capitalism is comparatively new. Without a few thousand years of human society under its belt, capitalism would have nothing to develop. Even today, I believe the really interesting ideas are coming from outside capitalism.

Mary B.
Mary B4 years ago

David , We have all those new things, IN SPITE of what's being called 'free market capitalism'. Just think of the innovation that could have happened by now if people didn't have to spend most of their time working for pay they can barely survive on. And fighting to get better wages and working conditions.But, hey, keep up your fantasy, it will become real, it just won't look like what we have now. Workers will have their share of the country's money supply in the form of a living wage stipend every month so they never again have to stay in a bad job.There will be no stigma around getting money from the government because people will finally 'get it' that it can't be got from any place else. All the lies glorifying capitalism will be exposed, and the good parts of socialism, free market economy, personal responsability, and community contribution, and lots of other solutions will be re-invented for this day and technology. You live in a memory from a past where life was harder, tyrants ruled and fewer people had tasted freedom and comfort. If you think we're planning on going back to that, you're a fool. Which is too bad because there's no reason for anybody to keep holding onto that fear.

Julie Botsch
Julie Botsch4 years ago

Thanks for the article...

Marianne R.
Marianne R4 years ago

Interesting view

Mary B.
Mary B4 years ago

It has long been my opinion that the old saying about "teaching a man to fish" was supposed to be applied to the rich who had to have everything done for them, instead of the poor {who have been catching fish for survival for centuries] implying that the poor don't know anything and that's why the rich are 'providing' for them, giving them jobs and welfare.

Penny Ranger
Hendrica Ranger4 years ago

If you want to knit pick i need 'servants' also knowen as personal care attendance to help me.every day i am disabled

Rehana VN
Rehana VN4 years ago