Part of the Series

Faced with a labor market rife with adversity, a circle of nannies in New York City have done something extraordinary, overturning economists’ assumptions about “self-interested” markets. Operating in the shadows, these workers have created microeconomies of their own, where they are able to share resources, and protect their jobs and pay. Transcending basic notions of mutual aid, the operations of this underground network allow this group of nannies to send lifelines to one another. Their informal economies offer lessons in redistribution, the value of unionization and the power of comradery.

The Conditions of Paid Domestic Labor

I first learned about the New York City nannies’ radical mutual aid efforts through conversations with Gloria — a warm, deeply caring and maternal woman. At the time, she was living in the Bronx, New York, while working as a nanny for a family on the wealthy Upper West Side of Manhattan. Gloria (who asked to be identified using a pseudonym to protect her from the risk of employment retaliation), fit the demographic of many of the caregivers in the neighborhood: Most were older, Black or Latine and/or immigrant women, caring for children of white, upper middle-class families.

This labor dynamic mirrors a nationwide trend. Of the 2.2 million domestic workers in the United States, 91.5 percent are women, and 52.4 percent are Black, Latine or Asian American/Pacific Islander. Two in five domestic workers are aged 50 or older (40.2 percent), which is true for just one-third of all other workers (33.7 percent).

In the mornings, Gloria rose before the break of dawn and trekked across boroughs to the home of the family for whom she worked. She hoped her own son, a high school student, would wake up in time for class. She arrived before her bosses had their first cup of coffee, going straight to the kitchen to prepare breakfast and lunch for the children. No easy feat, she always managed to get the youngest, a 6-year-old girl I will call Mira (also a pseudonym), out of bed. Gloria readied everyone for the day, packed their bags and schlepped them off to their school down the street.

Gloria was a career nanny. Before working for Mira’s family, she worked for three other New York City households until the families moved or the children outgrew the need for her services. Depending on the preferences of her employer, she cooked, cleaned, helped with homework, did laundry, went on vacations and almost always taught the children Spanish. When Gloria was not hiking to and from a typically robust schedule of extracurricular activities, she was expected to engage in active, thoughtful play.

On busy days, Gloria could be with Mira’s family for more than 12 hours, and she rarely received overtime pay. Thirty-two percent of nannies claim this injustice to be true. Gloria didn’t have a contract and was paid under the table. She was initially grateful for this — it allowed her to pay fewer taxes and have cash on hand. Some of the other domestic workers in the neighborhood needed to be paid off the books as well because their immigration status prevented them from having the necessary paperwork for formal employment. Unfortunately, this arrangement often diminishes their ability to negotiate better working conditions. The benefits of their jobs, and their employment more generally, are subject to the unchecked whims of their employers.

In fact, domestic workers are three times more likely to be living in poverty or just above the poverty line but without sufficient income to make ends meet. Only 20 percent of domestic workers receive health care coverage through their jobs, and fewer than 10 percent are covered by an employer-provided retirement plan.

These injustices are not entirely due to the underground nature of domestic work. Many come from deliberate policy exclusions. For example, in the original Social Security Act of 1935, domestic workers were barred. More recent legislation like the National Labor Relations Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act, Civil Rights Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and Family and Medical Leave Act all include provisions that allow for the exclusion of domestic workers from protections.

At the end of the school day, Gloria would wait outside the blacktop of Mira’s school with her giant, sparkly pink bag — filled to the brim with candies, fruits, pretzels, bandages, water bottles, chalk, team uniforms, tutus, and anything else a 6-year-old could possibly cry for after a long day in class. Waiting next to her in the pickup line were dozens of other nannies, vastly outnumbering the parents.

Gloria chatted with the other nannies in line before the final bell. These women worked together for years — from the time the children they cared for were babies until they were high school-aged. Families saw immense value in having the same nanny care for all of their children over the course of their childhoods. They often boasted that their nanny was “part of the family.”

Just as the children of the school were classmates, playmates and neighbors, the caregivers were coworkers. The nannies would share snacks, spend time with each other’s children, organize playdates and frequently discuss their work. The children knew and trusted the circle of nannies in the neighborhood. If a child was misbehaving or in crisis, it was not uncommon for a nanny other than their own to step in.

Transcending basic notions of mutual aid, the operations of this underground network allow this group of nannies to send lifelines to one another.

Mira would be led out by her teacher in a mob of other kindergarteners waiting to be retrieved. She would bounce on the tips of her toes to look for Gloria in the crowd, barreling toward her once she got a glimpse of the sparkly bag, or Gloria’s bright red hair. Mira’s friends would soon flock to Gloria as well, grabbing for snacks or toys that she often bought with her own money. After some time on the playground, combinations of children and their nannies would attend varying after-school activities. Mira’s friends went to soccer or basketball, some went to piano and some had a chess class. Unless they had scheduled a play date, everyone typically ended up back at the playground and then headed home for dinner.

An Underground Mobilization of Mutual Aid

In the spring of 2021, Gloria got unexpected news that derailed her jam-packed days — she was pregnant.

Gloria’s pregnancy came with serious health complications. At 40 years old, she was considered high-risk, and the conditions of her development often left her in excruciating pain when she attempted physical activity. Carrying heavy bags, staying on her feet all day, and spotting Mira across the monkey bars proved near impossible. She was afraid of telling her employers, fearing they would terminate her in anticipation of less frequent work availability, or refuse to pay for the time she had to take off to attend necessary doctor’s appointments.

Though this sort of employment discrimination is illegal, Gloria had been personal witness to nannies fired for such reasons. Her weekly expenses were barely covered by her salary, and her employment was totally contingent on the discretion and benevolence of Mira’s parents. She couldn’t afford to lose a few hours of work, much less a full day.

In teary whispers outside of school gates, Gloria confided in the other nannies about her medical situation and fears. Quickly, they sprang to action.

A group of five other nannies mobilized their labor to help Gloria. While she was at a doctor’s appointment, a member of this close-knit group of nannies would pick Mira up from school — carrying Gloria’s big sparkly pink bag in addition to her own. She would bring Mira to one of her extracurricular activities, where she would be watched by two other nannies whose children were also involved. A different nanny would swing by after the class or practice and bring Mira back to the playground, where she would finally meet Gloria. The nannies involved in this mutual aid operation all knew Mira’s parents through interactions surrounding the children’s play dates and neighborhood activities, so they didn’t feel that Mira’s parents would be alarmed if they happened to see Mira walking with one of them without Gloria present. In this way, Gloria was able to attend these doctor’s appointments through the aid of her colleagues, and without risking a hostile reaction from her employer, thereby preserving her job. This operation occurred countless times, seamlessly, over the course of multiple months.

A few weeks after the nannies commenced this informal operation, Gloria had a miscarriage. She was devastated. Though obviously anxious about the difficulty of managing her taxing job and a new child, Gloria had been thrilled by the promise of a growing family. Her friends rushed to her comfort, but she never took a day off of work. She couldn’t afford it. All of the help they provided in lightening her load during pregnancy, though extensive, only allowed Gloria to barely keep her head above the water.

An Underground Economy Fueled by Care

The nannies who helped Gloria were not incentivized by additional compensation, but by a tight-knit comradery developed over years of working together, dealing with similar or overlapping life obstacles. The system of labor sharing they created was intricate, thought-out and flawless.

To economists, this would constitute an economy in every right — an organism that grows and shrinks and responds, a system that fluctuates to move resources to where they’re needed, and take them from where there’s excess. These women had fashioned an antiseptic microeconomy of their own — one that depended on their trust and faith in one another to compensate for the fundamental lackings in their job. They managed to replace faulty systems dominated by capital with a functional practice dominated by social ties.

In teary whispers outside of school gates, Gloria confided in the other nannies about her medical situation and fears. Quickly, they sprang to action.

Sharing their labor like this could be considered a form of informal social insurance — mutual aid without the exchange of material currency. Amazingly, this is just one of the myriad feats their economy has been able to accomplish.

Gloria and the other nannies have also created a version of price-setting — establishing their own minimum wage. Again, working under the table means there’s opportunity for their employers to pay them less than the legal minimum wage, and often, that’s the case. The average domestic worker is paid 74 cents for every dollar that a similar worker would make in another occupation — or 26 percent less. In an attempt to counteract this, Gloria and the nannies band together.

If a family in the neighborhood on the Upper West Side wants to hire a new nanny or housekeeper, they often first turn to the folks who work for their neighbors, and ask for a referral. Friends and colleagues of Gloria’s employers have frequently asked her if she knew anyone who was looking for work.

This referral process allowed for the women to protect against some risk in their jobs. In theory, if a neighboring family were to find a nanny or housekeeper by other means, and that person worked for a salary significantly lower than Gloria’s, the new family might go to Gloria’s employer and encourage them to lower her salary, or encourage them to hire someone who would work for less altogether.

Because Gloria was able to refer someone she knew, she and the other nannies had power over the salary that person would accept. Before connecting a nanny with a family in need, the circle of nannies discuss their own wages and hours, how many children the new family has and the expected responsibilities of the caretaker to decide on a fair pay for the open position. They make it clear to the possible hire that they will only be referred if they promise to accept wages above this predetermined threshold, so as to not push down the pay of the rest of the women even further.

And so, the enterprise expands. These women have produced mechanisms to protect their labor, their wages and their “benefits” outside of the existing frameworks. We can see, even just in the tiny school playground, the ingenuity created in the face of serious hindrances.

In her book Raising Brooklyn, Tamara M. Brown also documents the ways in which a syndication of nannies counteract existing, splintered economies. At yet another New York City playground, nannies without access to formal banking institutions were able to create their own savings programs, much like a ROSCA.

Brown talked with nannies who created a savings collective called Susu, stemming from West Indian tradition. Their Susu was a large pot of money that was collected, organized and distributed among the participants. The members were all nannies who frequented the same playgrounds and cared for children who were friends or classmates. Together, the members decided on the amount of money (called a “hand”) that they would contribute to the “pot” each week. After each member made their weekly contribution, one of them would receive the full amount that accrued. This process repeated week after week, until each participant had a turn at receiving the pot. Through this Susu, many of the women were able to pay for things more expensive than what they could afford with their salaries alone — like immigration lawyers, down payments and sudden health costs.

This is a further example of a complex, invisible economy. It is affirmation of the idea that what was occurring at Mira’s school was not a unique phenomenon, and that collaborative innovations exist in these women-dominated, underground spheres.

It’s tragic that New York City nannies have to compensate for failures in their labor market resulting from disregard of the profession and of the workers. Yet, the ways in which they have managed to protect each other is miraculous. Many of the academic studies of domestic workers center on deficiencies — the resources they lack. But it’s clear a lot can be learned from studying their successes.

From examining this type of economy, we can make assumptions about the effect of social ties and collaboration in the sharing of resources for our political economy at large. When it comes to discussions of redistribution, fairness of work, unionization and collaboration, there needs to be tangible examples of successful execution. These tend to happen invisibly. Diving deeper into the workings of groups of domestic workers proves to be a perfect lens.

Domestic workers and domestic work are understudied. With a more comprehensive look into how these individuals allocate resources, we can get a better sense of what they truly need and create better policies to ensure they receive it. Beyond that, a look into economies that exist in their own right can inform economists of the ways in which just distribution can occur.