On the morning of Jan. 6, 1996, a powerful snowstorm hit New York City. Snow drifts were up to 8 feet high and city officials advised New Yorkers to stay home. Christine Lewis, then a 34-year-old Trinidadian immigrant and nanny, was taking shelter with her five-year-old daughter in a two-bedroom apartment she shared with her sister and teenage nephew in the Bronx.
The phone rang and Lewis picked it up. It was her employer in Manhattan.
“Are you coming?” Lewis recalls her employer asking.
“In no way could I get to work,” Lewis says. The railway tracks in the Bronx were frozen over with ice.
She had worked for her employer for the past six years, sometimes working 12 to 14 hours a day. Her monthly salary was just $350, far below New York’s minimum wage in 1990 of $3.80 per hour. Had she been making that, Lewis’ bare minimum salary would have been around $912 to $1,064 a month.
“I was bringing all that I am to the workspace, but really underpaid,” she says. “The audacity of the woman to say to me ‘come here.’ ”
The same conversation happened on Labor Day, a national paid holiday, Lewis says.
In 2001, Lewis joined Domestic Workers United, an organization established in 2000 by Filipina and South Asian women advocating for domestic workers who were underpaid or abused by their employers.
The struggles of several women who walk babies in the parks are stories people don’t see, she says. “You see them going into somebody’s home, and by the way, they don’t go through the front door, they go through the concierge elevators; it’s still happening.”
“Living here is not for the faint of heart”
Lewis has worked as a nanny in New York for more than three decades. She still nannies today, taking care of a child, taking him off the bus, to the library and the park, helping him with homework and teaching him life skills. However, she’s also a trained early childhood educator, writer, poet, steel pan musician, organizer, public speaker, an actor, and a participant of PEN America’s Worker Writers School. She wrote the ‘36 True Tales of Immigration,’ a chapter in the book ‘Alien Nation,’ a series of writings performed at the Public Theater in New York. She recently completed a Labor Studies course at Wayne University, and describes herself as a multidisciplinary artist.
She was born in San Fernando, Trinidad, in 1961 as the fifth of six children to Coleridge Theophilus Lewis, an oil field worker, professional electrician, and labor union worker, and Leonese Lewis, whom she describes as a stoic Christian woman and singer who also worked in the oil industry.
In Trinidad, Lewis worked as a head start and adult literacy teacher. She also established a preschool program back home. But in 1989, after receiving letters from her older sister in the U.S. encouraging her to relocate, she decided to move to New York. “Living here is not for the faint of heart,” Lewis says. “Because you come with all that you have, you come with all that you know, and…with all your educational achievement, you have to start from the ground up.”
To climb the ladder of success, she educated herself in the U.S. She took a certificate course in early childhood education at New York University. Being a “history buff,” she says, helped her understand immigrant labor workers and the loopholes in the U.S. labor industry.
The New York Domestic Worker Bill of Rights
One day in 2001, while at a park taking care of a child she nannies, a friend walked up to Lewis and said, “You are such a speaker, we want you in the movement.” Lewis agreed and became one of the early members of Domestic Workers United. As a member, she became instrumental in the passing of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.
She joined other members of the DWU to begin organizing in 2003, going back and forth to Albany to advocate for the rights of domestic workers who were being mistreated by their employers. Finally, after a six-year organizing campaign, led by DWU and the New York Domestic Workers Justice Coalition, the New York Domestic Worker Bill of Rights — the first in the U.S. — passed on August 31, 2010.
“When I came to the movement, it really was where I needed to be,” she says.
The law raised standards for domestic workers in New York, which total more than 300,000 and are mostly immigrant women of color. It filled the gaps in labor laws that had neglected to protect domestic workers. Minimum wage coverage was extended to part-time babysitters and live-in companions. They were also granted overtime coverage, protection against sexual harassment as well as other protections. The law has since grown more branches. In 2021, New York’s human rights law was extended to protect domestic workers. Paid family leave benefits were also extended to include domestic workers who work at least 20 hours per week.
“When the bill of rights passed, employers said to their employees ‘Good bye, we don’t need you anymore,’ ” Lewis says. “Or ‘give the doorman the keys’. It sounds like fiction, right? But you hear these women’s stories. I just tell the stories I hear. Part of them are my stories too.”
Pioneers of DWU were Asian women organizing with the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence Against Women and other allies including Jews For Racial and Economic Justice, and the Workers Justice Project. Over the years, however, the DWU has morphed into a workers-led movement, primarily led by black Caribbean immigrant women in New York.
Every month, DWU hosts a rights-conversation with domestic workers in New York, with representatives from the Department of Consumer and Workers Protection. They also have lawyers who take women’s cases. If they feel their wages have been stolen, and they can prove it, DWU writes a complaint letter, Lewis says, and gives it to pro-bono lawyers at Take Root Justice.
“No written policy or mandate will save us unless we have community.”
A thread that runs through all of DWU’s work and the struggle of immigrants, is the struggle of belonging to community, Lewis says. “No written policy or mandate will save us unless we have community.”
Since the pandemic, DWU has partnered with Maple Street Community Garden to give sustainable food, fruits, and vegetables to domestic workers regularly. Through funds and donations the organization received in 2020, DWU was able to give dozens of women $150 each, helping them with bills and food.
Lewis says she noticed there has been a racial reckoning and funding revolution during the pandemic, particularly in the aftermath of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd’s deaths. Organizations started to give grants to groups that they wouldn’t normally give, she says.
Some of DWU’s target goals this year include healing, wellness, and food justice programs. A recent grant from the Creatives Rebuild New York will help bring some of these goals to fruition, Lewis says.
“While we get the bill of rights, there’s still not much protection for women,” she says. “There are women who are working and who don’t have healthcare. That’s big. And it’s a major reason why some of us are poor because we have to pay out of pocket to see doctors. But we rally on.”
For Lewis, work is sacred. Immigrants talk about giving their children the best but it’s not about the money, but the labor expended into giving children the best of everything, she says. “When I go into somebody’s home, I am more than they could actually pay for, really. I come with my teaching, music ability, acting, and all the skills I possess. When we as women — black, Caribbean, women of color and immigrant women — do our home work, we don’t get the pay but we do the work like we are praying to God.”