Filipino Nannies: Desired but Unprotected

A Filipino Nanny Sitting in New York's Central Park - Photo: Cristina Pastor

A Filipino Nanny Sitting in New York’s Central Park. (Photo: Cristina Pastor)

Cora* starts work on Mondays at 8 a.m., washing, drying and folding clothes. She ends at 7 p.m. after wiping her employer’s dinner table clean. On the way out of their Upper East Side apartment, she kisses her ward goodbye, and begins her solitary trek back home to Queens.

Except for Monday’s added laundry duties, weekdays are pretty much identical for this Filipino nanny. Cora cleans the two-bedroom apartment, shops for food, cooks, dresses Mary Kate, 6, and walks the little girl to school. At a nearby park, she meets up with fellow nannies for some relaxation and friendly gossip.

She picks up Mary Kate after a couple of hours, helps her with homework, and prepares dinner for the family. On days when Mary Kate has piano and dance lessons, Cora is cut some slack for not cooking dinner. Cora’s day ends when the family is done with their meal and Mary Kate is nicely bathed and powdered.

For her 55-hour work week (11 hours a day from Monday to Friday), Cora is paid $600. A total of $2,400 a month.

There’s more. On weekends, Cora spends her time working for another family, adding $800 to her monthly take-home income. She couldn’t believe it when she found out her annual gross of $38K was just slightly lower than a web copy editor’s entry-level salary, and higher than a nursing assistant’s. For Cora, all of it is off the books.

Josie is another Filipino nanny working in Manhattan. She suffered a pay demotion from $600 to $500 a week after her ward, David, started school. Her employers told her there’s not much for her to do in the hours the boy is in school.

“I was so angry,” Josie said. “I walked out, threatening to quit if they lowered it any further.” But David, crying, pleaded with his parents not to let Josie go. Her employers talked her out of leaving.

Josie and David are very close. At Central Park’s James Michael Levin Playground, where they hang out after school, this reporter caught them on a bench – David licking his ice cream cone and Josie wiping every drip that dribbled down his shirt. “This boy is like a son to me,” she beamed proudly.

Cora and Josie, both in their 50s, married and experienced with children, are a breed of nannies who command a premium in Manhattan. Many employers believe mature nannies in their 40s or 50s are better hires than younger ones, who see their jobs as menial and are constantly looking for more glamorous temp jobs.

Cora and Josie are dedicated, nurturing and patient, treating their wards as they would their own children. They teach them to be respectful to their parents and not to talk back with an attitude.  Both are professionals with college degrees earned in the Philippines, so they can help with the kids’ homework.  But both are also undocumented immigrants.

While Cora appears happy in her job, all that could change in four months. Her employer  is due to give birth to Mary Kate’s sister. Cora is not thrilled about caring for another infant, although she raised Mary Kate from year one after her mother went back to work in real estate.

The family has been complaining loudly about financially hard times and told Cora they can’t raise her salary when she starts caring for a second child. In fact, they are even dropping hints about cutting it down to $500 a week, because with real estate sales lagging, the mother could easily work from home and help with childcare.

Cora has cause to worry. Undocumented workers have limited legal protection, and many “can be fired just for asking for a raise or time off,” according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), a national organization that advocates for nannies, caregivers and housekeepers.

On its website, NDWA states “the lack of legal protection creates steep barriers to negotiation for a domestic worker, who may be afraid to negotiate the terms of her employment, for fear she will be fired without warning.”

Nannies belonging to agencies may command higher weekly salaries—anywhere from $650 to $950 a for a 50- to 60-hour work week, depending on the number of children and household chores to be performed—but Cora and Josie could care less. They say they are still making much more as nannies in New York than if they were back in the Philippines teaching (in Josie’s case) or working in the family’s grocery store (in Cora’s case).

They feel lucky to have reasonably “good employers,” who are  not physically maltreating them like some other nannies who have made the news. In fact, when Cora’s husband had to undergo a heart procedure after a stroke not too long ago, her employers were quick with cash. “I asked them if I could borrow against my salary, and they agreed,” she recalled. “They gave me a thousand dollars right away.”

A religious woman who attends Church every Sunday, Cora said she appreciates that her employers value her services. But Josie has a chronic and worsening medical issue, diabetes, which is why she couldn’t afford to take more than a $100 reduction in weekly pay.  Her roommate is leaving, and unless she can find someone to split the $1,000 rent of her Queens room, she will not be able to continue working in the U.S., she said. That would leave her with only $1,000 for other expenses, including out-of-pocket fees to her doctor for medical checkups and medications, which range from $75 to $150 per visit.

“I would rather go home,” she said.

The NDWA has been pressing Albany to codify a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights that would guarantee the estimated 200,000 domestic workers in New York State basic benefits: a 40-hour work week; overtime pay; one day off a week; and advance notice of termination or severance pay. Yet Cora and Josie do not know anything about the pending legislation and are doubtful it would apply to undocumented immigrants like them.

“If the law is to have any integrity at all,” said Berna Ellorin, chair of the Filipino grassroots organization Bayan USA, it should apply to all domestic workers, undocumented or not. In fact, the Bill of Rights was passed by the New York State Assembly last year, and was awaiting State Senate approval when Albany’s June 2009 coup disrupted the agenda.

Soon afterwards, the New York Times published an editorial supporting the bill:

“If the Legislature decides to return to its senses and start passing meaningful legislation that improves New Yorkers’ lives, it should include the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Albany, which has not been able to govern its way out of a paper bag, should at least be able to bestow some fundamental rights and protections on the invisible workers whose labors are a cornerstone of the New York economy.”

Ellorin agrees. “A Bill of Rights is a big help to all the nannies, caregivers, and cleaners who are not officially considered ‘labor’,” she said. “Because labor standards do not apply to them, they are open to abuse.”

*Most of the names in this article have been changed.
AboutCristina DC Pastor
Cristina DC Pastor, a former Fi2W Business and Economics Reporting fellow, is the publisher and editor of The FilAm ( Her book, “Scratch the News: Filipino Americans in Our Midst” (Inkwater, 2005), is a celebration of ordinary citizens at the center of extraordinary stories. She is a graduate of The New School.