The ethics of paying domestic workers when you get a pay cut yourself.

By Brienne Walsh
November 25, 2020
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At the beginning of April, Vera, a 35-year-old Charlotte resident who works in marketing, got word that her salary would be slashed by 20%. She was making good money, $160,000 a year, but it still stung. Her husband, who works in sales and relies on commission, saw his projected income of $140,000 a year completely disappear.

Almost immediately Vera, who was then pregnant with their second child, started making cuts to their spending. She secured a lower interest rate for her family’s mortgage, which cut their monthly mortgage payments by roughly $1,000. She cut back $100 a month on groceries and canceled the family’s Sirius XM radio subscription. She even potty trained her 2-year-old daughter to save on diapers. And to raise cash, Vera sold household items and baby furniture on Facebook Marketplace, netting about $1,000.

One thing they didn’t cut: the salaries of their part-time nanny and housekeeper, even though both were quarantining from March until May. Vera says she didn’t think twice about that decision, as the women would struggle to pay their bills without the money. The nanny has a daughter in college and is a recent survivor of cancer. And the housekeeper lost many of her clients due to the pandemic.

Most people, it seems, did not behave like this: One study, released by the National Domestic Worker Alliance, found that 90% of the 20,000 Spanish-speaking domestic workers surveyed had lost their jobs in the early days of the pandemic. By the end of September, 36% of these women were still without jobs. And even those who were working struggled to pay their bills—of the women surveyed, over half stated that for the first six months of the pandemic, they were unable to pay their rent or mortgages.

That begs the question: When you’re facing an income cut or lose your job, what is the ethical way to approach your financial relationship with domestic workers such as nannies, landscapers and housekeepers?

First up, if you don’t already have a written agreement that outlines things like paid sick leave, safety protocols like testing and mask-wearing, time off and severance, draw one up, says Jodi Smith, the president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. (You can easily download a template on a site like domesticworkers.org.) These written agreements are especially useful now, when exposure to COVID-19 may cause either an employer or her employee to self-quarantine.

“If I’m a domestic worker, and you tell me not to come in, from an ethical standpoint you should still be paying me,” says Smith. “If I say I’m not coming, whether or not I am paid for sick leave depends on my contract.”

Next, be sure that the lines of communication are open. If you or your partner lose your job, or face a salary reduction, be clear about your financial situation with your domestic employees even if, in the short term, you don’t have plans to reduce their pay. “These are people who work in your house,” says Smith. “They take care of your family and your pets. You need to be as respectful to them as possible.”

If you do have to reduce their salary, Smith recommends giving them as much notice as you possibly can—a month, or even more time—so that they can begin to look for other jobs. During this time, with their permission, you can offer to help them look for new employment opportunities or set them up with friends who might be looking for help.

As the end of the year approaches, you may realize that you don’t have the funds to pay a domestic worker the year-end bonus that you would have given them in a normal year. Rather than skip it, Smith notes, plan on paying the bonus when your own personal finances recover, even if that’s a year from now. “If I get a job in April, and my income is where it used to be, I’m going to pay my nanny her full end-of-year bonus in April,” Smith says. She notes that this is good practice even if your nanny no longer works for you or was laid off due to COVID-19 early in 2020.

Finally, even if you’re out of funds, you can still help domestic workers and their families throughout the winter. Smith recommends looking for food pantries in the area and helping them apply for aid through local organizations, which can be especially helpful if their first language isn’t English.