Monday, December 01, 2014

Upstairs, Downstairs, in leggings

So this Dear Prudence letter might seem to just fall into the usual Sexy World Problems category:

Subject: Hottie helper  
Dear Prudence: I recently went back to work after the birth of my second child. My husband and I have been floored by how challenging it is to have two kids and two working parents in one household. We have arranged to have a young woman live rent-free in our basement, in exchange for being our family helper. She drives the kids kids to preschool, cooks occasional dinners, cleans the house, etc. It’s a sweet gig for all involved, the girl is a great fit for my family, and we are happy to help her out while she goes to college. There's a hitch. She’s incredibly sexy and dresses in a way that leaves little to the imagination: skin-tight leggings, spaghetti strap tanks with nothing underneath. I don't get the feeling from my husband that he even notices, but it wigs me out. Should I just acknowledge this as a non- threat and work on my own insecurities, or address her and ask her to cover up?  
Emily Yoffe [answers:] What you describe her wearing is standard for college students, and absolutely standard for someone relaxing at home. The issue is not her clothes, but that she is a gorgeous, taut young woman, and you are feeling like a less taut, overwhelmed not-so-young woman. I’m assuming your husband actually has noticed, but he’s a gentleman and has learned how to keep his eyeballs in his head. You, too, have to keep your head screwed on right. This is about you, not her, and not your husband. You have solved one of the grinding problems working people with young children face. So congratulate yourself and enjoy the extra pair of hands, and stop dwelling on the fact that the hands are attached to someone stunning.
Good-looking young woman? Check. Titillating bralessness? Check. Inappropriate-but-clichéd affair possibly imminent? Check. It's all most lightly-scandalous, but there's a huge issue here that somehow goes unremarked: This couple has, if not technically a slave, an unpaid live-in servant. And they view this arrangement as "help[ing] her out while she goes to college"! It's obviously convenient for this family that their housekeeper/cook/babysitter lives in their home, just as it was for the Bellamy family. Those servants, however, got paid.


caryatis said...

Not "technically" a slave? Not close to a slave in any way.

It doesn't sound like she's working full-time. Free rent in exchange for a little cooking, cleaning and driving sounds good to me. She presumably is free to leave if she decides she could make more elsewhere. And your other objection to unpaid work (that it's the only way to enter some fields) doesn't apply. So I don't see why you would object to a consensual and mutually beneficial contract.

caryatis said...

Think about the math here: I don't know where they are, but if they're in an expensive city, a one-bedroom apartment could cost $12,000+ a year. Decent pay for part-time work.

Although it is a little condescending to refer to the arrangement as "helping her out" when clearly she is helping them out too.

Phoebe said...

Does work only deserve pay if it's full-time?

If the letter had come across as, this is free rent in exchange for occasional tasks, I don't think I'd have reacted as I did. (I'd have assumed Dad wanted her around, and not seen the need to post about it.) But "cooking, cleaning and driving" sounds like kind of a lot of work! And like the kind of work that could easily escalate. The sort of work that would be presented as, 'Oh, just do this one thing, it'll take no time at all,' and then it takes hours.

An arrangement along these lines seems like something appropriate for an adult child moving back home. If this young woman is somehow in a similar category - a close family friend, say - then maybe there'd be some cap on how much work would be asked in exchange for what's fundamentally a free place to live.

But if this is a case of, they needed household help, and it's helpful for them to have the person who drives their kids to preschool already there in the mornings, and still there in the evenings when it's time for dinner, then they have a live-in servant. If it's a high-rent area, does that mean live-in help should be grateful for the posh surroundings and not demand pay beyond the basement space they sleep in? Live-in carer is a job.

As for this arrangement vs. an unpaid internship, there's a similarity, I think, but you're right that it's not about ability to enter a prestigious career. My sense is that this young woman's being exploited because, paradoxically, she comes across as middle-class and not working-class or poor. She may not seem like someone who needs the money (which... she probably does if she's signed up for this), and so it doesn't seem outrageous, in the way it would if their free help was coming from someone who wasn't a conventionally-attractive traditional-age (or thereabouts) college student.

caryatis said...

I agree it'd be preferable to have some limit on hours worked. But the classic argument for freedom of contract is that if the au pair thinks the arrangement is beneficial to her, and the family thinks the arrangement is beneficial to them, we should presume the arrangment is good for both, even if there are other options that might be more appealing to you or I.

Part-time work still deserves pay, yes, but pay in kind is pay. Rent takes up some 30-60% of people's budgets in a big city--she is saving that much in what she would otherwise be spending/borrowing for school. I think the reason we might object to this with an adult is that irregular part-time work would interfere with a person's ability to get a full-time job, but the student presumably isn't interested in full-time work.

I mention it even though it undermines my argument...some cities have a minimum wage requirement for this type of work, so apparently some legislatures agree with you.-- Which just gives the young woman more bargaining power, as not only could she leave if dissatisfied, she could threaten to sue.

Phoebe said...

This gets into bigger questions - should there be a minimum wage? Any labor laws whatsoever? After all, someone may have 'consented' to pick tomatoes in exchange for free housing near the tomato field. Is that "freedom of contract"? Remember that the only one calling the arrangement mutually beneficial is the one who's benefitting from free live-in help.

I guess what I keep coming back to is that live-in help is... a thing. And not a new one. I mean, maid's quarters! And the room where the maid sleeps, while probably in a posh area, is not payment-in-kind. To continue with my old-TV-show examples, Fran on "The Nanny" sure did seem to enjoy living on the Upper East Side in a mansion with the dashing Mr. Sheffield. She benefitted, no doubt, from the low crime rate, and the proximity to Bloomingdales. But being the nanny was her job, for which she was paid, in money.

If someone's in a situation where they urgently need a place to live (say, if they were "working in a bridal shop in Flushing, Queens, till her boyfriend kicked her out in one of those crushing scenes"), a job that includes housing is certainly going to be more appealing, but it seems cruel to then say that because the housing's a key part of the draw, it should be the payment in its entirety. Indeed, someone in that boat is going to extra-easily exploited, and is - correct me if I'm wrong, I lack legal expertise - unlikely to sue anybody.

Britta said...

This reminds me of the homeless woman some people found on craigslist to be a live-in servant for room and board. Then it turned out (quelle surprise!) that a homeless woman willing to work for free from craigslist turned out to be crazy (though it was hard to sort how much was actual crazy and how much was the woman simply flipped out at the family), and the family was trying to vilify her in the media, only to come under scrutiny themselves because it's illegal to have someone 'agree' to work for free + room and board in CA. Turns out contracts violating labor laws are not legally enforceable.

But yeah, that made me uneasy in the original. If it's really an arrangement of dropping the kids off and doing some simple dinner prep that may be reasonable;* if it's being a nanny-housekeeper, than it's very possibly a violation of labor laws.

*I know some grad students who have lived in mansion carriage houses or attic flats rent free in exchange for doing X hours of yard work a month, which seems reasonable and also more easily controllable & quantifiable than childcare, cooking, and cleaning duties.