Barbara Young wants to help domestic workers stand up for their rights.
It was a simple desire that launched Barbara Young on a path she never expected: She wanted to learn CPR.
It was 2001. Young, an immigrant from Barbados with five children of her own, had been a full time nanny for eight years. A woman approached her in a park where she was watching over her young charge, and suggested she sign up for a course in childcare skills, including CPR, offered by the group Domestic Workers United. Young signed up, and along with new skills and that CPR card, Young also learned about the history of domestic work.
“It was just like a light went off for me,” Young recalled, and she signed up as a volunteer with the DWU. “I wanted every domestic worker that I met on the street to know about this training, and why they were going through such hardship in their jobs.”
“Domestic worker” is the umbrella term for those workers who work in other people’s homes – not only nannies, but housekeepers and caregivers for the elderly as well, people who are privately paid by families and who are not members of unions or employees of agencies. In other words, workers who have to fend for themselves even as they take care of other people. Most of them are women, and in most states, they have little protection. A recent report by the National Employment Law Project found that 25 percent of California's domestic workers were paid below that state's minimum wage.
In 2010, Young was instrumental in persuading lawmakers in New York State to pass the first-of-its-kind Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, which requires payment at minimum wage, and makes overtime and paid time off mandatory.
That same year, at the age of 63, after more than 17 years as a fulltime nanny and 10 years as a volunteer, Young joined the staff of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (of which the DWU is a member) as a National Organizer.
Earlier this month, Young was one of seven winners nationwide of the 2013 Purpose Prize, awarded by Encore.org, a non-profit organization whose mission is to encourage older people to pursue second acts for the greater good.
Young spoke with NBC News about her work.
Raab: You were a nanny for a long time and you work with other domestic workers. What are some of the struggles that you faced in your work that were in plain sight but were not seen?
Young: The struggles that I faced were working long hours for low pay. Live-in nannies — and I did this for many years -- are up at 6 o’clock in the morning and they don’t get to bed until after 9 o’clock or 10 o’clock at night. They have to wait until the employers finish eating to clean the kitchen after dinner. And then they have to be up in the morning early to make breakfast and get the kids out to school. You don’t get compensated for the extra hours that you work. Time-off is also a problem. There are many holidays workers should get time off, even if they are not paid. But some employers will say, ‘Thanksgiving has nothing to do with you, Memorial Day has nothing to do with you, you’re an immigrant, you’re not an American, this is an American holiday.’ And most families know they should pay your Social Security, especially for people who ask them to, but they don’t.
How did you start to organize other domestic workers at the same time you had a job as a nanny?
Every day, I would bring some newsletters from [the DWU], and every day I would be talking to every other nanny, making sure I gave them information about the organization, I would make sure that I got their phone number and call them and remind them when there was a meeting.
What kind of reaction did you get?
Some just brushed me off. But some people were very interested and over a period of time, we started really building the organization. I would tell people, when they were not certain, if you were a nurse, you would join the nurses’ association. If you were a teacher, you would join the teachers’ association. And this is the work you do, this is what’s sending your kids to school, this is what’s paying your rent, and probably sending something back home to the family you left behind.
The goal was to let people know they matter, they are important, the job they were doing was important. And if I could get them to come and be a part of this organization – for me, it was building power, lifting up voices and building power.
When you would go to the state capital to talk to legislators about the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, what kind of reaction did you get?
At first it was, ‘what are you talking about?’ I think they were confusing domestic workers with domestic violence.
We had to explain the hardships to them. We told them about a woman who worked as a live-in person and one day the employer said, ‘I don’t need you.’ All of a sudden, she had nowhere to live. She was homeless, because her workplace was her home. These were things we were explaining, and they were surprised.
What do you want domestic workers to know about how they should see themselves and their work?
My goal was and still is to make sure domestic workers are respected and have dignified jobs. My goal is to see that that they have labor protections. And I want every domestic worker to see themselves as professionals, and to really know within themselves that they are a great big help and support in this economy.
What do you want employers of domestic workers to know?
My message to employers is, if you hire a domestic worker, really appreciate what that person is doing for you to allow you to live your best life.
Editor’s note: this interview has been edited and condensed.
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First published December 18 2013, 3:26 PM