Edith Mendoza came to this country in 2015, dreaming of a better life for her and her family.
But she soon found herself the victim of labor exploitation, toiling away up to 100 hours a week without a single day off in 18 months.
Mendoza’s story was one of many shared during a public hearing on the state of workers’ rights in New York City, sponsored by the Department of Consumer Affairs and held at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City on Tuesday.
Her contract, which called for a 35-hour work week as a nanny, was to include overtime pay and benefits.
Instead, she said, “I had to wake up at 6 a.m. and worked straight sometimes until 1 a.m. I did regular house chores and deep home cleaning,” in a six-bedroom, six-bathroom house.
Her chores, she added, included car washing, shoveling of snow and scrubbing the home’s fences.
“My health deteriorated and I still feel the impact of that today,” she said. “I was often dizzy, my eyes got blurry. I felt that I would collapse.”
She begged her employers to allow her to take a day off to see a doctor but she said she “was refused many times and threatened to be fired. I was horrified to realize that they did not care at all.”
Mendoza said she thought of running away but “was terrified to lose my work authorization and status. I would become unable to support my family.”
As she offered testimony, along with two dozen other low-wage and immigrant workers, she had the ears of DCA Commissioner Lorelei Salas, City Commission on Human Rights Commissioner Carmelyn Malalis and Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Bitta Mostofi.
Another statement came from Jacqui Orie, a nanny in the city for over 18 years, who spoke of retaliation at her work place, surveillance of workers and high expectations for very low wages.
“If an employer does not get what they want, they threaten workers with a bad reference letter,” she said. “If a worker actually does stand up for themselves, they are punished by being blacklisted from getting future work ... or are threatened with police or immigration intervention.”
As a result, she said, “the vicious circle of exploitation continues.”
Orie spoke on behalf of herself and two fellow members of the Groundbreakers program, part of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an advocacy organization founded in 2007.
Despite continued outreach, Orie said, “it is still not easy for workers to come forward. There is no safety net.”
Domestic workers, she said, can’t afford to be fired because “the cost of living in the city is so high that any crisis can put a worker and her family at risk of losing everything.”
“We’re counting on you ... to not let this be another meeting you check off your ‘things to do list,’” Orie added.
Instead, she called for the implementation of policies and programs to “help us build dignity and value and respect in our work place.”
Other voices heard during the first part of the proceedings included a construction worker, who told of the dangers of the job while suggesting “discrimination is almost everywhere,” a cashier who said she was fired for taking time off to care for her three sick children and a restaurant worker who, nearly in tears, simply said, “It’s hard work.”
“It’s overtaxing,” the latter worker said. “So many issues are going unnoticed.”
During the follow-up open session, individuals and advocacy groups were given the opportunity to discuss their opinions.
Marcella Kocolatos, a staff attorney with A Better Balance — a legal nonprofit that helps workers care for themselves and their families — said that “on issues such as fair scheduling, equal pay, sexual harassment and paid sick time, New York City has continued to push ahead on progressive change. Community outreach is essential to make sure workers know about their rights.”
She also called upon the city to pass legislation providing a private right of action under the Earned Safe and Sick Time Act, which provides for time off for an employee’s safety or the safety of family members.