NEW YORK (Reuters) - Advocates for New York City's army of domestic workers are responding to tough economic times with a push to win new protections for nannies, housekeepers and others at the bottom of the economic ladder.
As more domestic workers lose jobs or find their hours cut, advocates say New York may become the first U.S. state to enact a bill of rights for such workers, defined as anyone who works in a private home, such as caregivers for the elderly.
Domestic workers are covered under the state's minimum wage law but because their job arrangements are often informal they often make less than the mandated $7.15 per hour and receive no overtime pay.
They've also been hit hard by the recession, which has forced many to accept jobs at lower wages.
Monica Brathwaite, originally from Barbados, said she spent three years working 11 hours per day for a New York couple, earning $600 per week, and was fired at the end of October.
"They said the kids are in school now so grandma can pick up the kids," she said. "I'm job hunting."
Jean Joseph, who worked 24-hour shifts as a nanny for newborns, said such shifts used to pay $250 per day, but lately employers have been offering $150.
"I have jobs that have been canceled," she said. "The reason they say is because of the financial situation, but it's probably because they found someone who would do it for less."
Nearly all domestic workers are female, most are not U.S. citizens, and about two-thirds are black or Hispanic, according to a survey by Domestic Workers United, an advocacy group, and DataCenter, a research organization.
New York, along with cities like Los Angeles and Miami, has some of the highest concentration of domestic workers in the United States. Pay ranges widely, from about $7 per hour to about $12, with households free to set their own rates above minimum wage.
Experts estimate there are 200,000 domestic workers in the New York metropolitan area, based on census data, but they say the total could be much higher.
A quarter earn less than minimum wage or wages that place them below the poverty line. One-third work at least 60 hours a week and a majority are the primary income earner for their own family. Most are not paid for sick days and only one in 10 have health insurance, the survey said.
The bill of rights, which could be voted on by the New York State Assembly by April, would require employers to pay overtime, provide a day off, give advance notice of termination and pay severance. It would also call for annual cost of living pay increases and either a healthcare plan or pay high enough to cover the cost of a state health plan.
Such bills have precedent at the local level. Earlier this year, Maryland's Montgomery County, outside Washington D.C., signed a law regulating the employment of housekeepers and nannies.
Supporters of the legislation expect it to pass the lower house of the New York legislature, but whether the State Senate and Gov. David Paterson go along is less certain.
"This bill would send a strong message to domestic employers that you cannot take for granted or ignore the rights of this workforce," said Ai-jen Poo, lead organizer of Domestic Workers United. "New York would be paving the way."
Over the last few months, the group has received "exponentially more" calls from workers losing their jobs than before the financial crisis. The group sometimes contacts the employer to ask for severance, but employers rarely respond.
Editing by Daniel Trotta and Eric Beech