Voices of the help: Domestic workers tell their stories | News Feature | Indy Week
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Voices of the help: Domestic workers tell their stories 


Interviews and photos by Anna Blackshaw. Audio and audio editing by Lisa Sorg.

We see them every day. They clean our hospitals, universities and hotels. They work in private homes caring for our children and our aging parents. We see them pushing strollers and wheelchairs and cleaning carts. Their daily presence allows the professional classes to go to work knowing that their loved ones are tended to and that their offices sparkle, each morning an empty wastebasket at every desk.

They are part of a workforce that remains hidden in plain view, so familiar to us as to render them invisible.

The Triangle is home to thousands of domestic workers: nannies, home health-care aides and housekeepers. Their ethnic makeup is diverse, reflecting the changing demographics of the South: immigrant women of color joining the ranks of the African-American women who have historically done this work.

click to enlarge Domestic workers in private homes are not protected by the National Labor Relations Act, passed in the 1930s. - PHOTO BY ANNA BLACKSHAW
  • Photo by Anna Blackshaw
  • Domestic workers in private homes are not protected by the National Labor Relations Act, passed in the 1930s.

Last summer, people flocked to see The Help, a film about African-American domestic workers and their white employers in 1960s pre-civil rights Mississippi. The film has been nominated for a Golden Globe award and is on the short list for a Best Picture nomination. For four weeks it was the top-grossing movie in America, and many left the theater grateful that times have changed.

But at screenings of the film and roundtable discussions throughout the country, domestic workers told a different story. They spoke of the deeply rooted bias against their profession that manifests in small and large forms of disrespect; of sexual harassment and emotional and physical abuse; of the fact that 50 years later, they still work without labor protections. Rarely were their complaints about the nature of the work they do; they focused more on the lack of respect for their labor and the love with which they do it.

Many also said they were validated by seeing their livelihood depicted on the screen. Despite its Hollywood conventions, the film provided a view into this world and helped spark a conversation about the conditions and experiences of domestic workers today.

Domestic workers in private homes are not protected by the National Labor Relations Act, which was passed during the New Deal and gave workers the right to organize and form unions. When the act was being negotiated in the 1930s, domestic workers in private homes and farmworkers were explicitly excluded as a concession to Southern lawmakers who were unwilling to give labor rights to this predominantly African-American workforce. Domestic workers are also excluded from some of the protections established by the Civil Rights Act of 1964—because the home is not seen as a workplace, the protections against workplace discrimination do not apply. With no protections and no one mediating the relationship between worker and employer, employers in private homes can act without scrutiny.

click to enlarge Housekeepers at state institutions work without rights to collective bargaining. - PHOTO BY ANNA BLACKSHAW

Housekeepers at institutions like University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill are protected from workplace discrimination but face institutional hurdles and retaliation when lodging complaints about working conditions or discrimination. They also work without rights to collective bargaining, which effectively limits their ability to hold institutions accountable to their workplace practices.

Yet these workers are organizing. There is a growing movement of housekeepers and domestic workers throughout the country who are exposing abuses in the industry and fighting for change. Last year, New York passed the first-ever reforms for workers in private homes, ensuring their right to receive overtime pay and paid vacations and protections from harassment and discrimination. Domestic workers in California are pushing for similar legislation. And last month, President Obama proposed new U.S. Department of Labor standards for home health-care workers that would end their exclusion from minimum wage and overtime protections, a significant change that domestic-worker organizers had long campaigned for.

In North Carolina, housekeepers at UNC and Central Regional Hospital have launched campaigns to assert the dignity of their workforce while organizing against poor working conditions and a culture of racial and sexual harassment. At UNC, where housekeepers have a long history of organizing, their advocacy recently helped compel the removal of Bill Burston as director of housekeeping services after several women charged him with sexual harassment. And at Duke, housekeepers and students have joined forces to shine a light on conditions there.

Like the heroines of The Help, these workers face significant risks in standing up and speaking out. Some of them have asked not to be identified, in fear of being fired or retaliated against.

These are some of their stories.


Odessa Davis

Odessa was a domestic worker in private homes and at UNC Hospital before becoming a housekeeper at UNC. She belongs to the Housekeepers Association.

I have been a housekeeper since I was 13 years old. My mother was a housekeeper and my grandmother was before her. We worked on a farm picking cotton and pulling tobacco, and my mom cleaned for them, and eventually I started taking over for my mom. But my dream was to grow up and be a ballerina.

Sometimes, when I tell people I am a housekeeper, the conversation just stops. Or if I go somewhere, like the bank, at first they are real friendly, but when I say that I am a housekeeper the tone of their voice changes. It hurts.

Last year my manager suspended me for a week without pay for taking an unscheduled break. I had just finished cleaning an oven with heavy fumes and had sat down to get my breath back. I have an asthma condition and the manager knew this and she knew how strong that cleaning spray was, but without even asking me why I was sitting down, and with no warning, she suspended me for a week without pay. And I got fed up. Sometimes you just brush things under the rug because you need your job, but I knew my rights, and I knew that what she did was wrong, and it made me angry. I thought about something my mom had told me. She said: "Odessa, you can do anything that you want to do that you know is right in your heart. If you believe in it, then go for it." So I decided to stand up. Other housekeepers and students stood with me and eventually they gave me my back pay, but they have not changed the policy about unscheduled breaks and we are still fighting it.

There is solidarity among the housekeepers, but people are scared to speak up. Managers talk down to us and keep us in fear of losing our jobs. But we are organizing to change our work conditions. We are giving each other the courage to stand up.


Theresa Garrett - PHOTO BY ANNA BLACKSHAW

Theresa Garrett

Theresa was the former Women's Leadership Coordinator at N.C. Central University, where she graduated with degrees in hospitality and finance. She is currently applying to graduate schools.

I was a full-time live-in nanny for four children. When you are a nanny, people don't even call you by your name; you are just "the nanny." I would say, "No, I am Theresa, and I happen to nanny, but I do have a name." But you are automatically nameless. I am a person who really tries to respect other folk, so I would never call someone "the dishwasher" or "the cook" or "the accountant." I feel like that is demoralizing; you know that you are so much more. So many nannies are well-spoken, intelligent and wonderful parents to their own children, but you would never know that, because you take everything away from them by calling them just by their title.

I worked for a very wealthy family, and I don't think they particularly liked that I spoke my mind. I am not hard to get along with but I do have an opinion. I don't think they were used to somebody who did not just say "Yes, sir" and "Yes, ma'am."

Because there was money involved, it always felt as if my employers had the upper hand. They had the money, and I needed the job. It was a constant negotiation. I had to fit it into their schedule if I wanted to take a day off or if I wanted to take a long weekend. Because you are the nanny, it doesn't matter what you have going on; if they have something, you have to drop it and work into their schedule. People think that because they have money, they can throw that around and feel more than and make others feel less than.

I worked for another family that was much better. The mother did not make me feel inferior. She asked my opinions about things and wanted my suggestions. She appreciated me, and I respected her so much for that. I knew that she needed me so that she could work to provide for her family, so if I didn't come in, she could not work. I needed her, and she needed me. It was a partnership.


click to enlarge Araceli Saucedo - PHOTO BY ANNA BLACKSHAW

Araceli Saucedo

Araceli was born in California but moved to Mexico with her family when she was a child. She returned to the U.S. after she married and works as a housekeeper at a well-known Triangle university. She asked that her real name not be used.

We are all intelligent, but sometimes circumstances define what you do. What I see is that nobody wants this job, that it is seen as the lowest job you can get. People see you just as a housekeeper, but when you go home you are a regular person: You are a mother, you are a daughter, you are a wife, you are a friend, you are the same. The only difference is where you are.

I took this job because of the benefits, but I almost immediately began having trouble with my supervisor. She was always following me, checking every detail, making sure I was doing the work right. Sometimes she would reprimand me in the hall where all the students were so they could hear. I know that she hurt me psychologically because when I would see her I would shake and get cold and sweat. Some of the supervisors here do not treat us like normal human beings. There are never words of encouragement like "good job," just always some kinds of problem with your work.

In my country I had dreams of working in a bank or maybe being a lawyer, but when I came here that all changed. Initially my husband and I were just going to work here and then go back to Mexico, but when my children were born I did not want them to end up in the same place as me, without a degree. I would like to keep working to help them achieve their dreams. My daughter likes science and wants to be a neurosurgeon; her grandfather died of a stroke and she says that she wants to help people so that they don't die of that. My son wants to work with computers. They are not ashamed of what I do. They say that it doesn't matter what I am or what I do for a living, they understand that I do it for them.


click to enlarge Sheila Dunn - PHOTO BY ANNA BLACKSHAW

Sheila Dunn

Sheila, 54, has been working as a home healthcare worker for more than 20 years. She asked that her real name not be used.

I work in people's homes taking care of them. I help them take baths, get dressed and eat their meals. I take their vital signs and give them their medications. Some of them are stroke victims and paralyzed, so I help them with transfers, lifting them in and out of the bed and onto the commode and into wheelchairs. There is a lot of bending to put their shoes on or to hold them up and wash them. It is hard work, and it takes a toll on you. Today I had bad back pains. I am taking care of a man who is 6'3" and probably weighs 280 pounds, and I am always helping him in and out of bed and in and out of the chair. The one that I am working for now is one of the better ones. He is very kind and the family is very nice.

My mom cleaned houses for people and my grandmother did the same. My mom was a famous lady in the neighborhood; all the white people came to her if they got sick. I was the baby of the family so she always had to drag me along. She had me helping her ever since I was little, and it kind of grew on me and stuck with me because I would see how my mom could make them better. It was just something she was good at, taking care of people. I knew I could do this in life because I have a loving, caring heart and without that you just couldn't do this kind of work.

Each home is different strokes. Some homes I feel respected, but most I don't. If you try to speak your mind then you lose your job. Nobody wants you to talk for yourself or tell them how you feel. You just always got to sit back in the corner and bite your tongue or else. You can't say a word. From one day to the next, the minute you walk through the door until the minute you walk out, you just don't know what you are going to be hit with, you just have to be prepared.


Nihlei Tial

Nihlei is originally from Burma, where she worked as a chemistry teacher until being forced to flee the country because of her husband's political activity. She has been working as a housekeeper at UNC since 2006.

In my village in Burma, I was the first person to graduate from high school and the university. I wanted to be an educated person. My parents were very happy when I finished my education. In my country, when we get happy, we have to say to the gods, thank you very much, and then we kill a pig or a cow or a buffalo and we invite everybody from the village to celebrate.

I was at the University of Rangoon when the democracy protests began in 1988. My husband was part of that movement, and eventually we were forced to leave Burma and settled in India, where I taught math until we came to America.

The students here know that I was a chemistry teacher in Burma. Some people are surprised: Oh, you are a chemistry teacher and a housekeeper. But I don't feel bad being a housekeeper here, because my whole life I have been with students. I was a student until college and when I finished my education and became a teacher, I was with students again. Right now I am almost 50 years old, but inside I am like 20 because I am with the students. The students do not look down on us, but we should get more respect from our supervisors. We work really hard. I take pride in my work, but what is hard for me is being seen differently.

My kids, they also know I was a teacher. My son, he is learning algebra, and he asks me for help. He knows, Oh, my mom can help me.


click to enlarge Marte Williamson - PHOTO BY ANNA BLACKSHAW

Marte Williamson

Marte grew up in a small mill village and worked as a pharmacist before starting her own business as a housecleaner. She asked that her real name not be used.

I started working when I was 13 years old as a waitress at the Dairy Bar in Chapel Hill. My father worked in a mill his whole life, and he wanted me to do something other than be a mill worker, so he pushed me to graduate from high school. But I was still expected to do anything that was considered a women's job—a secretary or a nurse or a homemaker. And I did work as a secretary and a bookkeeper until my 30s when I decided to go back to school and get a degree in pharmacy.

I started cleaning houses when I got downsized from the hospital that I worked in as a pharmacist. I had trouble finding another job—mainly I think it was because of my age and the fact that the economy was tanking—but people still needed their houses cleaned.

For me this is a business arrangement. I have a set price and am very clear about what I will do. It gives me a lot of satisfaction to clean somebody's house. When I get through I am tired as the dickens, but I will still walk through the house and make sure there is nothing that I missed. The families I work for are very appreciative and they let me know that, which makes a difference. They respect me as a person and they respect the work that I do.

I don't know why housecleaners are not treated better, because we are in your home—we know things about you that other people don't. There is a certain trust that happens, but it should go both ways. Every worker deserves that. Anyone can find pride in the work that they do if they are treated with respect.


click to enlarge Amanda Hulon - PHOTO BY ANNA BLACKSHAW

Amanda Hulon

Amanda was a housekeeper at UNC until last year, when she was placed on disability and later fired after she filed sexual harassment suits against her supervisor and his supervisor, the director of housekeeping services. Hulon provided this interview last year. She has since reached a confidential settlement with UNC and no longer speaks publicly about her experience.

There is a strong culture of sexual harassment at the university. I had worked there all of four days before my supervisor told me that if I had sex with him he would make my life very comfortable, and if I didn't he would make my life difficult. I was terrified. I was single, I had all of these bills, and I had been out of work for three or four months before this job. I did not know what to do. If I told, it could get back to him and he could fire me, but if I did not tell, he was going to make my job a living hell.

And he did. After work, he would get into his car and drive slowly next to me while I was walking down the street. At work he would walk two feet behind me and have me bend over picking up stuff while he made comments. You would be amazed at the different ways that I found to empty trash without bending over.

For as long as I was at the university it was drilled in my head to follow your chain of command. So I went to my crew leader, to the head of housekeeping, to human resources, but I never received any support from the university.

I filed the lawsuit because I thought that if I came forward then maybe more people would come forward too. I was so tired of seeing vulnerable people, especially the workers that do not speak English, being taken advantage of. So in a way, I did it for all the other women who are scared to speak up.

I honestly wish I could hear someone from the university say, "I am sorry that you went through that." They do not even have to admit wrongdoing, just that they are sorry. I feel like as a housekeeper, if management even pretended like they cared, we would not feel as hurt or disrespected. I used to say to my supervisors: "If you were to say 'good job' or 'keep up the good work,' that goes a long way. Just one word of encouragement can override the three or four bad things you say to me. But if I am disrespected on a daily basis, how do you think I am going to feel?"


click to enlarge Rachel Shukuru - PHOTO BY ANNA BLACKSHAW

Rachel Shukuru

Rachel, 37, is a political refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She came to the U.S. after four years in a refugee camp in Zambia, where she lived after her husband and children were killed in the region's civil wars.

The first job I had when I came to Chapel Hill was cleaning rooms at a motel. But I could not do the work fast enough. You had to be able to change the bed sheets and make the bed in four minutes. It was hard for me because I did not have the language and because I had back injuries from the war in my country. Now I am cleaning at a pizza parlor and going to school to get my CNA [certified nursing assistant] certificate.

Today in my CNA training we worked with older people. We washed them, helped them bathe, helped them get dressed and eat. In my heart, I like to help people. Ever since I was a young girl, I have liked spending time with older people. I liked to talk with them and hear their stories. When somebody is old, they may have lost the power to do things, maybe they are weak or have lost their memory. Some do not have any families. But we are the same; we are all human beings, and we will all get old one day.

It helps me when I help people. When I first went to the refugee camp, I had nothing. I lost my family, my home, everything. It was hard. And people helped me: They brought me food and salt and clothes. I remember those people still. It made me want to help others. So at the camp I volunteered as a reproductive-health facilitator. We treated people who were sick, talked to them about nutrition, showed them how to use condoms and heard their stories. It was a blessing, because I used to suffer and it helped me to encourage other people to take care of themselves. It helped me to survive.


Sebastiana Flores - PHOTO BY ANNA BLACKSHAW

Sebastiana Flores

Sebastiana was born in El Salvador and has lived in the U.S. for 30 years. She has worked as a housekeeper at Duke for nine years.

I got asthma because of the very strong cleaning chemicals that we use. When I told my former supervisor about this, she wouldn't change the chemicals, and I kept getting worse. One time I inhaled so many chemicals that I could not breathe and was passing out and they took me to Duke Hospital in an ambulance.

Because I was a temp at that time and didn't have insurance, I had to pay the bills and the medicines out of pocket, which were very expensive. It was not until the doctor called my supervisor and told her I could not use those chemicals anymore that she finally removed them. But she didn't do a report or anything. Had she done a report or treated this as a job injury, Duke would be paying for my medicines, but because she didn't do it, I have to pay for them. Ever since then, she has been discriminating against me because of my sickness and my age. I know this because she has told me that I am old and useless to her.

Many of us are very afraid of her. She yells at us in front of the students. I feel terrible because she treats us worse than animals. We love the students very much. We would like to maintain the relationships we have with them, even though this supervisor discourages this. She doesn't want us to speak to them, and I don't know why. They are like our family; we spend eight hours a day with them, and they know we are great workers.

We would like the university to change, to support the workers a little bit more and dedicate more to them. They never ask us what's going on. And when you place a complaint, they side with the supervisor and we suffer the consequences. I have spent four years putting up with this. Initially I would bow my head down and wouldn't say anything. But little by little I have been meeting with people I can talk to about this, and many of us have decided to fight back. We are afraid, but I am tired of being treated like this. I want to fight.


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