Sunday, January 17, 2010

Home $ Work, The Hypothetical Salary of a SAHM vs. the Real World

You may have already heard that has come up with an income stay-at-home moms would make if they actually got paid for their work. But did you know that they’ve also suggested a crafty little gift-giving idea for dad? They recommend it for Mother’s Day, but really, anytime my husband followed their suggestion, printed out my hypothetical paycheck, and gave it to me as a---gift---he’d end up in the dog house. Wow. A homemade pay stub. I’ll take that to the bank and cash it. Or Maybe I’ll invest the $122,732 in Boardwalk property and collect $200 when I pass go. interviewed 12,000 moms and apparently went to great lengths to figure out that stay-at-home moms do the job of ten people. But did they forget there actually are women who get paid to take care of the home? They are called nannies and housekeepers. And, they are not making six figures.

If eBay has taught us anything about the marketplace, it’s that the value of something is determined by what people are willing to pay. And, domestic workers, a term being re-appropriated by some groups including Domestic Workers United, are sometimes not even making minimum wage. In the world of creative salary calculation, the care of the home is valued. In the real world, it is not.

It is not a perfect comparison. A stay-at-home mom cannot be replaced by a nanny or housekeeper in every respect, but their spheres and tasks are largely identical. And, certainly there are many instances in which a worker is treated with respect, paid well, and embraced as an essential part of a busy household. Many readers of this blog might attest to that. Still, what is the point of calculating the monetary value of a SAHM while ignoring the reality that the group that does get paid to work in the home usually earns very little? Some say we should use the high hypothetical salary to prove the SAHM’s value.

There’s the rub. Until all domestic workers are treated with respect and fair wages, society is still not going to value the work of raising children and running a household. Or maybe it’s the other way around: because society does not value the work of raising children and running a household, many domestic workers are not treated with respect and fair wages. Our destinies, to paraphrase someone whose birthday is celebrated this week, are tied.

Priscilla Gonzalez is the director of Domestic Workers United. This legislative year might see the fruition of something she’s worked very hard to achieve: the passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in the New York State Senate. I imagine a lot of people are terrified.

The Bill of Rights goes further than versions passed in Montgomery County, Maryland and Manhattan. It actually amends labor laws and acknowledges the unique nature of domestic labor, where an employee is usually the only worker, reports to two employers, performs most work in a private residency, and often lives there, as well.

What does the Bill of Rights demand? Outrageous things like time-and-a half for every hour over 40 hours per week, one day off per 7-day calendar; a limited number of paid vacation days, holidays, sick and personal days; protection from employment discrimination, advance notice of termination, severance pay based on the number of years worked, an annual cost of living increase tied to the Consumer Price Index, and health care provided by employers or as a wage supplement. And, enforcement through the department of labor and civil courts.

Forming a union is not the goal, and it’s not even possible. I need a team of experts to explain the nuances of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, but apparently, collective bargaining is a right for some people more than others.

In any case, Gonzalez says the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would be the first of its kind passed by a state. And, she is optimistic that by June, it really will pass.

Then she will embark on a mass public education campaign. I live in New Jersey, but I hope her efforts will help clear up a few things in my state, as well. I was at the library a few days ago, sitting on the floor while my toddler ate board books. There was a young woman on a blanket nearby, her newborn hypnotized by the florescent lights above. A prospective nanny sat next to them, and of course I eavesdropped. Finally, the mom broached the question: so how exactly do the taxes work?

Hum. How often do employers ask employees how taxes work? Maybe they ask the employee to determine how much to withhold—but a hazy and hesitant…how do they work? I am going to guess the mom had probably done her homework on the best organic crib sheets, but had remained na├»ve on issues related to taxes, sick days, vacation, and overtime. One of the best things about the DWBR is that it will standardize the industry. The nanny I observed finally suggested her future employer use the internet. “There is a lot of information about that there,” she said kindly.

This situation may have been a case of inexperience. I have to admit, the mother didn’t look much older than her baby. And, there did seem to be an effort on both parties to understand one another. It is nothing compared to the stories of abuse that permeate another realm of the profession, documented in a survey Gonzalez conducted with her members, most of whom come from the Caribbean, Africa and Latin America.

“I lived with a family and worked Monday to Sunday, seven days a week…I worked more than a hundred hours a week, with no days off. Sometimes my employer allowed me some time off to see friends in the city, but that was only a few times a year,” said a woman identified as Wilma.

Another said, “My employer called me two days after my surgery and demanded…that I come back to work right away. I went back to work four days after my surgery with stitches in my right breast and a bandage over my chest…I had appointments every six months to see the endocrinologist…They would always make it hard for me to keep these appointments…”

And, another, “When the amount of money that my employer owed me accumulated, she started to humiliate me.”

These stories are from the most marginalized workers. And the basic standards established by the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would address them.

There is a huge difference between fighting to secure decent treatment and rightful play, and fussing over the merits of a made up number on for privileged women lucky enough to get to take care of their own children.

Still, let’s tug this thread a little longer. I called my one connection to the nanny world to see what the view was from the other side of the nanny pay scale, slightly closer to the figure.

This nanny has always been paid by her employers, and earns two to three times as much as some of her counterparts. She is a pediatric nurse by training, but has been a nanny for the past twenty-eight years. She calls her employers, “my parents”, and expects holiday cards from all the kids she’s ever thought of as, “her own.” She has no regrets about leaving nursing to become a nanny—she loves how she spends each day.

But, her biggest fear is something Wilma just explained: surgery. If she ever has to have it, besides having no health insurance, she is sure her employer would let her go. The pressure to get to work—regardless of the circumstances—is huge. If it’s not imposed by the employer, it comes from the nanny herself.

“I’d never not show up,” she said. “I once had to rent a car because mine broke down, but I did. People depend on me.”

She’s in her sixties I asked when she thought she’d retire.

“I’ll never be able to retire. I will always have to work.” She wasn’t exaggerating and she wasn’t making a joke. She is a single woman with no benefits—of any kind—who works more than forty hours a week. She said the agency she once worked for is on the verge of going out of business. Nannies can’t find jobs. She feels lucky to have what she does.

She would never, she says, talk about health insurance with her employer. “They can’t afford that.” Still, the idea of a Bill of Rights appeals to her. “It would be nice to be a part of a group.” And, she thinks it would be good for all nannies to have protection from a few fickle employers. “A lot of people could take advantage of the (economic) situation, and not do the right thing. They say, ‘times are tough,’.”

The sticking point, for our hypothetical salary or the real world, is the same: where does the money come from? Certainly following the standards of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is fair. I support it and hope it is a foundation for future improvement. There will be those who say it will force employers to cut back on hours (and therefore pay) or find ways to game the system, or that otherwise fair employers will balk at the prospect of a healthcare supplement. And, what would happen if we moved passed basic standards towards an expectation of a living wage?

I don’t know. Denmark is starting to look pretty good to me right now. But, they only have 5 million people. There are more than 200,000 domestic workers in New York City, alone.

Let’s return to our original task, ripping apart the fantasy salary.

First, what are the jobs says a SAHM performs? They actually list fifteen in the master chart, including “cake decorator”. But in order of hours spent per week, here are the primary functions: housekeeper, day care center teacher, cook, computer operator, facilities manager, van driver, psychologist, laundry machine operator, janitor and chief executive officer. It’s fitting that the first two match our domestic worker scenario.

They assume a typical work week would be 90 hours, and at a fair wage, they’d make more than $90,000 plus $25,000 in overtime for a total of $122,732.

Not having their precise formula, we have to make a general assumption that the hourly wage is about $43. Could someone add that into the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights?

Probably not. Because another thing the article mentions, close to the end, is a study done by professors at Pace and Rider Universities that found business women returning to their careers after taking time off to raise children earn 20% less than those who never left. So that SAHM returning to work, about to hire a full time nanny, will see a cut in her real, not pretend, salary.

How much would it take to replace the 90 hours of the SAHM? The website, suggests splitting any job requiring more than 50 hours between two people. Let’s say we hire a housekeeper at $10 an hour to do 40 hours of work per week. With a $1,200 healthcare supplement, that takes us up to $22,000.

For the nanny, we’ll use numbers for a live-in nanny with a college degree or two years childcare experience making towards the high end of the scale for a 45-50 hour work week. says she would make about $800 per week. With $2,000 more for healthcare, we are up to $43,600. The total of both, our housekeeper and nanny: $65,600.

We could have spent half as much on the childcare by using an au pair, or a less experienced nanny, and we could have spend a great deal more by paying our housekeeper a living wage, which in my county of New Jersey, is $32.60/hour for a family with two adults and two children.

In a purely monetary sense, a SAHM’s functions could be replaced by two people for far less than the six figure salary talked about. I have to admit, I usually do not spend much time being an Accounting Clerk III, no matter what says I do. But, even allowing for an error on my part and huge potential differences in the specific hourly rates for our nanny and housekeeper, what we have is something much less than $122,732.

I am not writing this to disparage the value of stay-at-home moms and dads. I think, in reality, their contributions are priceless.

But, we might better serve the care of all families if we spend as much time thinking about the real salaries and prospects of the working moms who are nannies, housekeepers and caregivers, as we do the imaginary ones of those of us lucky enough to stay at home, and not get paid.


Liz said...

Hi Sarah,

I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog. It's always well thought out, well researched and thought provoking. Keep it up!


Anonymous said...

I can't believe the amount of research you put into your blog, sarah. It is one of the best I have read and ten times better than most of the bigshot ones - always engaging, thoughtful, and sharp in its politics, too.

marion said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


kendallfelix said...

Thanks for this post and your thoughts. Do you have a link to this study? (Probably not. Because another thing the article mentions, close to the end, is a study done by professors at Pace and Rider Universities that found business women returning to their careers after taking time off to raise children earn 20% less than those who never left. So that SAHM returning to work, about to hire a full time nanny, will see a cut in her real, not pretend, salary.)

Lunch Box Mom said...

Great question. Checking on, it looks like they have updated their pages on this subject-probably getting ready for Mother's day and their annual announcement on this.
But, I did find this story that mentions two professors at Rider and Pace and the study they did. However, it's not very "recent". Maybe they have followed up on the original study.

Thanks for reading!