Isabel Santos is a Chicago nanny who has been doing domestic work for the past 20 years.
Last year, for the first time, she received an end-of-year bonus from one of her employers.
“The truth is that every year I’ve hoped for one,” Santos told HuffPost in an interview that was conducted in Spanish.
“I come from a country where giving a bonus is the law,” she said, describing the “culture shock” of coming from Mexico and discovering “this is a First World country and there’s not this protection.” (The word that Santos uses to talk about the bonus, aguinaldo, can also translate as “Christmas gift.”)
Last year, she took a temporary job cleaning a church. They gave her a bonus in the form of gift cards.
“The truth is, it helped me a lot. We were in a bit of a crisis because of the pandemic,” said Santos.
“I felt really, really happy. I got home and told my daughters, because for the first time I had received a bonus. I’ve received boxes of chocolates or cookies or little gifts, but not a bonus,” she said, in spite of having worked with some families for stretches of two or three years.
In Mexico, she explained, if you have been working with a family for one year, you can expect a week’s pay. If you’ve been with a family for more than two years, the bonus goes up to two weeks’ pay.
If her current employer, the family whose 18-month-old child she cares for, gives her a bonus this year, Santos said she would use it to purchase food and pay her daughter’s college tuition.
Dionne Davis, who has worked as a nanny in Atlanta for nine years, told HuffPost that she’s received a bonus less than half of that time.
Sometimes, she said, “They just give you a card, and you don’t want to open it up in front of them.” But when she gets home and opens it, “there’s nothing in there.”
This year, Davis said, she would use a bonus for her own children, ages 23, 15 and 9.
“If it’s enough, I will probably just have a little cushion for a rainy day,” Davis added.
Domestic workers deserve a cash bonus every year.
Davis, who is also a spokesperson for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and a member of the We Dream In Black chapter, said a bonus “represents how much employers value me as a nanny.”
A year-end cash bonus, she continued, shows “they appreciate me and that we work well together, and they want to keep me on.”
“We do the invisible work that makes all of the work possible,” said Davis.
A year-end bonus is a way to let a nanny or other domestic worker feel seen in a society where their work is often underpaid and undervalued.
“The work that domestic workers do has a history of racialized exclusion,” Jenn Stowe, executive director of the NDWA, told HuffPost.
“Domestic workers do not have the protections that other workers do because of their exclusion in the New Deal,” said Stowe, alluding to the fact that domestic workers, along with agricultural, service and retail employees, were not entitled to the protections enshrined in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. These workers, most of them people of color, were excluded from guarantees such as the minimum wage, the 40-hour workweek, overtime pay and the right to unionize. They were also denied access to the New Deal’s signature program: Social Security.
While some of these workers did organize to fight for their rights, and activists like Davis and Santos are following in their footsteps, domestic workers in the U.S. still lack essential protections. Stowe pointed out that domestic workers don’t have guarantees such as sick days, overtime, Social Security and retirement benefits.
As an employer, you have the power to right some of these wrongs. The organization Hand in Hand, which offers resources to domestic workers and their employers, recommends that employers give their nannies five paid sick days per year. Additional paid time off should include the eight federal holidays and two weeks of paid vacation.
“The best practice that we see is two weeks of vacation per year, at a minimum, with one of the weeks at the time of their choosing,” said Stowe.
The year-end bonus is another way you can counter some of these historical inequities and show your nanny how much you respect them as a professional. The NDWA recommends that the bonus equal one to two weeks’ pay. This applies to part-time nannies as well. If she works 10 hours a week at a rate of $20 per hour, you would give a $200-400 bonus.
Tessa Petrich, a volunteer with Hand in Hand and the employer of a nanny and a housecleaner, told HuffPost that her family will be giving each employee two weeks’ pay as a bonus this year because “we’re able to,” but she encourages families who can’t give two weeks to give one week instead.
Of course, families can also choose to give more.
Petrich said the bonus is a “way to show how much you appreciate someone who has worked in your home.”
“In American society, it’s very common to give employees bonuses,” Petrich continued. “So why would an expectation be for me to receive a bonus from my employer but not to then give one?”
“We do the invisible work that makes all of the work possible.”
Perks and gifts don’t replace a cash bonus.
You may provide your nanny with additional benefits such as a transportation stipend to offset rising gas prices, a monthly pass for public transit, or meals, but these don’t replace a cash bonus that allows the worker to decide how to spend the money.
“While gifts and gift cards are wonderful, they’re still not cash in hand,” said Stowe.
Petrich agreed that the bonus needs to come in cash. “It allows whoever’s receiving it to use it in the way that they most need,” she said.
While a homemade card or gift from your child, baked goods or a bottle of wine might all be thoughtful end-of-year gifts, they should come in addition to a cash bonus.
The end of the year is also a good time to grant a raise for cost of living and performance, or seniority.
The rising cost of living impacts domestic workers.
“We see food prices going up 13%, energy costs are slated to rise by like 10%,” said Stowe.
While a bonus can help offset some of these costs, you should also raise your nanny’s pay to reflect the cost of living.
Hand in Hand recommends an 8% raise for domestic workers this year, in accordance with the Social Security Administration’s recommendation of an 8.3% cost of living raise — its largest to date.
“We have to pay for basic needs,” said Santos. “Water, electricity, they’re raising our rent, too. Gasoline — it’s all more expensive.”
Petrich said she is giving her housecleaner a 10% raise, and an even larger raise to her nanny.
“The women that we’re lucky enough to employ are incredible. For me, meeting the cost of living almost felt like not enough,” said Petrich.
Many employers make the mistake of waiting for their domestic workers to request a pay raise. But unequal power dynamics make it difficult for workers to do so.
“I think it’s important that the employer bring it up,” said Stowe, who mentioned that some families follow a policy of giving their domestic workers a raise every time they themselves get a pay increase at work.
Santos says that her limited English was one of the things that prevented her from talking to her employers about money, but that being in a worker’s collective has taught her “how to value myself a little more, and to pass along what I’ve learned to other workers so that they, too, know how to negotiate in their jobs.”
“The talk is uncomfortable, but we have to have a conversation with our bosses,” she continued, noting that having an annual contract to renew provides a good platform for talking through bonuses and raises.
Davis also mentioned that before her work with NDWA, “My voice as a nanny was a little bit muted,” but she now feels more confident when negotiating her contract with her employer.
Petrich believes the end of the calendar year offers a good opportunity to calculate pay raises. “It feels like the right time. People set budgets, people go into the new year, planning ahead.”
“We are the ones caring for the next generation. It’s important that we raise more kind-hearted human beings.”
Pay your workers when you go on vacation.
Many families take vacations over the holidays. But remember, if you’re getting paid that week, your domestic workers should be, too.
Planning your year in advance, you can allocate one of your worker’s two weeks of paid vacation to be this time that you are away, allowing them to take the other week at a time of their choosing.
The same approach applies to any reduction in hours over the holidays.
“If you’re reducing the regular hours for the person that you employ, we recommend that you still pay for the time,” said Stowe.
You count on that regular paycheck, and your domestic worker does, too.
Fulfill your obligations as an employer.
Calculating a fair salary, raises and year-end bonuses is part of the job description when you become an employer. You have expectations of your own boss. Show your nanny the professional respect that she deserves by fulfilling these same obligations to her.
It’s essential for families who employ domestic workers to consider themselves employers, “knowing that they are responsible for the well-being of their employees,” said Petrich.
She encouraged families to “reflect on how they can continue to be better at that role” and be the kind of boss they’d want to have themselves.
A note on teachers and others who care for your child.
When it comes to gifts, you might wonder, what’s the difference between a nanny and a teacher? Both care for my child. But while the school you send your child to employs its teachers, you are the one who employs your nanny.
It’s a kind gesture to give school teachers, coaches, occasional babysitters (child care providers who you do not hire for regular hours) and anyone else who works with your child a holiday gift to show your gratitude, but it’s the domestic workers you hire that rely on you for their bonus and raise.
Check in with your school about their gift policy before purchasing a gift or gift card for your child’s teacher. In New York City, all Board of Education employees are prohibited from accepting gifts worth $50 or more, and teachers are only allowed to accept student gifts “of minimal value,” such as a coffee mug.
But when it comes to your household employees, it’s your personal responsibility to make sure they are paid fairly and know you understand the value of their work.
“We are the ones caring for the next generation,” said Santos. “It’s important that we raise more kind-hearted human beings.”