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The Silent, Hidden Victims of the Economic Downtown

Two-career professional families are dealing with the economic downturn by cutting back on nannies and other domestic workers, the New York Times says today. Some of the families try to help their former employees find other work, or share them with friends; some do nothing but reduce their wages and hours or fire them outright.

From the Times:

In the New York area, where there is a high number of dual-career professionals and where workdays are notoriously long, the number of people filling in for them at home is also immense. Domestic Workers United, a nonprofit advocacy group, estimates there are more than 200,000 nannies, housekeepers, personal chefs and other domestic workers employed in the New York metropolitan area.

And as professionals recalibrate their spending because of job losses, salary or bonus cuts or just anxiety about the future, said Ai-jen Poo, an organizer at Domestic Workers United, “domestic workers’ wages are often the first thing that gets compromised.”

“Essentially, 10,000 jobs lost at Lehman Brothers means 10,000 domestic workers’ jobs that are in jeopardy,” she added, referring to the number of people in North America who were employed by the bank.

I know, I know; The Times runs more than its share of stories about Problems Faced By the Ultra Rich That Have Nothing to Do With the Rest of Us. Not being able to keep good help hardly ranks as a tragedy, given all the people facing foreclosures and job losses. And the paper put the story in the Home & Garden section. Think about that for a moment.

But even with all that, the story makes an important point. The people at the bottom of the economy have no safety net, no backup, and often nowhere to turn.

Michelle, a nanny from Guyana who worked until recently in the New York area, and wouldn’t give her last name because she is in the country illegally, said she had been with her employers, a media executive and his wife, for a year and a half before they fired her last month. “They came to me one evening and said to me they can’t afford to pay me anymore,” said Michelle, who lives in Queens and supports two teenage sons in Guyana, and hasn’t yet found a new job. “I said, how long are you going to give me? And they said just the following week. It’s close to Christmas. This is a very bad time.”

If you can stick with the piece, it ends by explaining that workers like Michelle are the kind of victims of this downturn that no one really hears about, given their circumstances.

From the Times:

“There’s a lot of fear around job loss,” said Ai-jen Poo, of Domestic Workers United. “Workers are getting their hours cut, they’re getting fired, their employers say they found somebody who will work for less.”

And “unlike other sectors getting hit, domestic workers have no safety net,” she added. “It’s the invisible, untold story of this crisis. It’s really hitting people hard.”

There’s a lot of pain to go around now. The Times story reminds us that some people feel it far more than others.

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