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Is Hiring a Domestic Worker Dirty Business?

Twice a month, I have a “domestic worker” (no one says “cleaning lady” any more) come help at my house. By that I mean, she does all the tasks I stink at: removing the excess cat hair of three cats; de-griming the tub; and sweeping Cheerios from the bizarre places my two-year old drops them. Each time this woman comes, we sit for a little while, and share parenting stories and laugh. And even though I pay her well, I still feel guilty when she comes. Is there some reason I can’t manage to clean my own home? Am I spoiled?

So I read with great interest Alice Sparberg Alexiou’s article in Lilith called “Who Cleans Your House?.” I’d never seen this topic covered, including all the mixed feelings that come with it, let alone written about from a Jewish perspective.

On the one hand, many Jewish women feel it’s socially unjust to bring women in to clean the house—especially given how many of these women are immigrants and/or people of color. According to Domestic Workers United, virtually all domestic workers today are immigrants. Because so many of them come to the States with no official documents, they are often totally exploited (often making as little as $2/hour and getting treated terribly). As Jewish women who believe in compassion and treating everyone with dignity, is this something we want to support?

On the other hand, any woman who is a working mother knows that there is simply not enough time in the day to handle daycare shuttling, work, making dinner, retaining a relationship with her husband, paying the bills, and doing story time with her kid(s). How often can she stay on top of vacuuming cat hair?

So if one treats a “domestic worker” well and with dignity, does this make hiring one okay? Or is that just a justification for passing off our “dirty” work to someone less privileged? Am I to blame for "using" another woman to do my traditional "wifely" duties so I can climb ahead professionally? Or am I perhaps "doing good" by making sure this woman is treated kindly and paid fairly?

Not sure of the answers. What do you think?

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Why do you think the domestic work is mainly your responsibility? I figured out that in most cases the wife should have the main employment and therfore if one spouse needs to stop earning, it usually should be the husband. You can figure out why too.

We happen to have a 22,000 sq. ft. hospitality business, with many rooms. I feel absolutely no remorse or guilt for not killing myself to clean - and I have seen my staff grow and prosper due to their employment here. They love their jobs, and we have very cordial relations going on nine years.

My mother started out as a domestic helper when she arrived in NYC from Ireland. She was treated with dignity and respect and she worked her heart out for an old Jewish woman on the Upper East Side. They are still good friends today -- 32 years later. My mom's former employer is now a trusted friend. Hire a "domestic helper" and don't feel guilty. Just treat her well. She will appreciate it...and some day, so will her children.

I recently hired a young woman to come in and do my floors, which I am unable to do for health reasons. I don't work outside the home, I look as healthy as anyone else, but I am prone to migraines which debillitate me. All that said, although I have legitimate reasons to hire someone, it feels very strange to have someone doing my dirty work. (I clean the bathrooms -- except tubs and showers --, I do my own laundry and dusting, etc. ) Yet I have to keep telling myself that I didn't yank someone off the street and make them a slave. I found the name of a woman who was looking for work to supplement the family income. But I feel sorry for her. I think maybe the greatest weirdness comes from the fact that she and I come from the same socio-economic life.

In reply to by Anonymous

I have an idea for a different kind of society where young people volunteer part time for a short time. If and when these young people become disabled, then they receive the help.

I hear guilt and defensiveness in the responses. I don't live in a 3,000 sq ft house (the size that Barbara Ehrenreich claims in Nickeled and Dimed in America that families go over to hired house cleaners), but it seems to me that one should take responsibility for what one owns, particularly in the Diaspora where y'all have two-day weekends.

I recall a woman saying, after having recently moved into her 3,000 sq ft house: "Five bathrooms. How'm I supposed to clean five bathrooms?!" Even as a teenager, something about that remark sounded off.

My folks hired a once-a-week cleaning woman, yet never asked either myself or my three siblings to lift a finger. Why couldn't we have been assigned the vacuming, ironing, and dusting? Has anyone thought about what message you send your kids when you hire someone else to clean your living space?

I found this interesting. I own a commercial and residential cleaning business. I agree. Many of the women who have this profession are immigrants. I find in this business, that my biggest advantage is that I am english speaking. It's the one comment I hear over and over again, "I can't communicate well with them". My company hires only those who ARE legal, and can prove it. They also must have their own transportation and a thorough background check is conducted before hire. After all, they ARE working in anothers' home, with valuables, and oftentimes, small children who also live in the home.

Each of the staff signs an independent contractor agreement, and in the memo of each check it says, "1099" which means they are working independently and responsible for reporting and paying their own taxes.

I thought this was a really interesting topic, and I don't see it discussed often. Thanks for sharing!


What about when they turn around after being "off the books" for 5 years and go to unemployment and show proof you've been paying them off the books and the government comes after you for breaking the law? The fines and hassle can be horrendous. What happens if your cash domestic worker falls down the stairs while cleaning your house and sues you? Your insurance won't cover them, so then you are liable for medical bills, damages, pain & suffering, AND the legal system coming after you for paying them off the books. Scary.

You have some interesting questions - I think the questions that I have are less about the "should I or shouldn't I have a domestic worker," but more about what are considered fair employment practices. Domestic workers, unlike other workers, are not protected by most labor laws, and they are therefore at the whim of their employer. If you live in New York City, you can get involved in the "Shalom Bayit: Justice for Domestic Workers" campaign going on right now at Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). Included in that first link is a list of resources for employers, which includes, among others, a document called "Best Employment Practice" and a sample contract. I recommend checking it out!

Dear MC No one thinks it odd if a person running a business employs a secretary, a bookkeeper, or an accountant, or sales staff. In fact, the business couldn't run if those staff were not employed. The same is true of dentists employing hygienists and dental nurses- there are many similarities we could each think of. The business person needs those other staff. Similarly, a woman running her home - and doing other things as well, including her work, whatever that may be, does not need to do all those other tasks- such as vacuuming, dusting, etc, herself. She needs to have both some time for herself, to refresh herself as a person, and for her husband and family. I have written more, but it continually disappears. My best wishes Norma

i think that if the cleaning lady/dude negotiates their pay and they are treated well there is nothing to feel guilty about. if you are hiring independent workers, you are actually supporting that person's business. yes, they are often off the books, but who cares (after you can buy enough food for your family, etc. then you should get on the books, pay taxes etc, but if the gov't is screwing you why not try to get around it until you are on your feet?)? my father's side came to this country only 25 years ago and now we have a family business worth a couple million dollars. they started out selling stuff out of the trunk of their car - mostly off the books of course. i dont think that they felt the work was demeaning. if you start with nothing and want more you have to work hard - i am sure that many of the cleaning people feel that way. dont feel bad. i think its good for them and for you - just as long as they are paid and treated fairly.

Interesting read...

Steven Burda

From where I sit, as long as you pay her well and treat her with the respect due another human being, what you're doing is as value-neutral as any other financial transaction. Same goes for hiring someone to chop and deliver one's firewood, or hiring a mechanic to change the oil in one's car.

Certainly there can be complicated emotional and power dynamics at work when one woman hires another to do housework. But I don't see anything inherently problematic in the practice; I don't think it's necessarily exploitative. It can be, but it doesn't have to be.

I've been meaning to blog about that Lilith piece since it came out; thanks for the reminder, maybe I'll actually get something written about it sometime soon!

How to cite this page

Cove, Michelle. "Is Hiring a Domestic Worker Dirty Business?." 3 October 2006. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 9, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/dirtybusiness>.

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