By Sam Bojarski | Sam@haitiantimes.com
In recent days, old allegations have resurfaced that Brooklyn Civil Court Judge Dweynie Esther Paul failed to pay state-mandated minimum wage and overtime to a home care worker who cared for the judge’s elderly mother.
Paul has defended herself against the accusations, originally detailed in a 2017 lawsuit, saying she merely stepped in to defend her ailing mother.
Upon learning of the controversy from the 2017 lawsuit, some Haitians on social media criticized the Paul family for allegedly underpaying Coffy. But some discussion focused on the non-monetary benefits immigrants can receive from household work.
One Instagram user, Harry McCalla, noted how immigrants hired by families can receive help with education and permanent residency status, in some cases.
“Many households have nannies who take care of their children, house, etc.,” McCalla also wrote, in response to a post from The Haitian Times, about the Paul controversy. “They are housed at their place of work for most likely 24/7 and 365 days a year. They reside with the families, eat with the families and most likely go everywhere with those families.”
The controversy highlights the prevalence of informal employment arrangements between workers and employers. Many workers are employed as regular independent contractors, sometimes at lower wages than they would receive through a placement agency, that may be offset by non-monetary perks by the employer. Others are hired through arrangements dubbed “under-the-table” because earnings are not taxed.
Those on the receiving end of informal contracts often work out of necessity. But with a “beneficent employer,” the work can involve benefits, ranging from flexible hours, to the chance to move up the economic ladder, said Ron Hayduk, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, whose research explores immigration and integration in American politics.
“Those possibilities vis a vis beginning in the informal sector and maybe moving to the formal sector, are also not to be dismissed,” Hayduk said.
But informal contracts between workers and employers, common in numerous industries from domestic work to construction, are difficult to enforce and can involve compensation above or below the minimum wage. While arrangements involve a written contract, the compensation is not reported to government authorities.
Across the country, people of all walks of life take under-the-table jobs that are even less formal, with no contract. The undocumented in particular, who are shut out of formal jobs, often need this type of work, said Marthe Bien-Aime, an entrepreneur based in Atlanta.
“They still have children to feed, they still have a house to pay,” said Bien-Aime, who used to pay a babysitter to care for her children years ago. “So they have to find ways to make [an] income.”
While unregulated and thus open to abuse, under-the-table work can have mutual benefits.
“The person who’s paying is getting the benefit of having somebody to watch over their children while they go make some real money,” Bien-Aime said. “[It’s] needs meeting needs.”
Extra-monetary perks in informal work
In the 2017 lawsuit Coffy alleged that Paul’s family paid her as little as $2.29 per hour. Coffy’s immigration status is unclear.
In New York City, home care agencies must pay at least the $15 per hour minimum wage, in addition to supplemental benefits. Statewide, domestic workers must receive the minimum wage in their respective municipality, as well as overtime pay. The state minimum wage has increased each year, from $9.70 at the start of 2017, to $12.50 per hour in 2021.
For informal workers, it is common to receive non-monetary perks, from learning English-language and technology skills to housing, Hayduk said. Still, lack of enforcement means workers may not see all the benefits offered.
“Those would be ways to sort of sweeten the pot and get people signed on,” said Hayduk. “Then the question is, how well are those [contracts] enforced?”
For her part, Paul has said, “I am deeply saddened that an unfounded allegation filed against my deceased mother targeting me, is being used to assassinate my character,” said the civil court judge, who is running for a separate judgeship on Brooklyn Surrogate’s Court, in a March 2 statement. “A family decision was made to resolve the case in an effort to allow us to enjoy our time with her until she passed in 2019 with dementia. … I never employed the complainant.”