Listening to the audiobook, The Help, about lives of poorly treated black domestic staff during the post-abolition era in America, and reading the current day tearjerker The Atlantic article, My Family Slave, I can’t help but feel my anxiety drain. I’ve been waiting on tenterhooks to hear back about a Personal Assistant job I that applied to. However, in the midst of reading about domestic staff being unfairly abused, I can’t help but feel a bit queer actively seeking out a line of work much maligned historically for its implications of slave versus enslaver. As a result, this week I’ll be writing a series of articles exploring this concept of “The New Domestics” and how and why it exists in a modern era.
The New Domestics
In the past and unfortunately ongoing today, household staff have been forced to work for the more powerful and the more wealthy. I, on the other hand, willingly am striving to become a part another’s household staff. The family I am applying to work for seems fair and appreciative of my skills and experience. It’s been a lengthy process for them, interviewing top candidates recommended from a staffing agency and then calling their references. A high finder’s fee, usually marked at about 15% of the hired employee’s salary, is paid to the agency for my hire, and I will be paid a salary that is commensurate with my experience.
Armed with an Ivy League degree and over 10 years of management experience, I am part of the turning tide of highly educated and qualified private household staff, cheekily titled by The New York Times “The New Domestics.”
Among this new class of The New Domestics, you find employees tasked with the following roles:
- Managing a household staff of 12, three properties, one yacht, numerous automobiles, and orchestral concert, and a multimillion dollar annual budget
- Overseeing six properties and the renovation of a 33,500-square-foot house, of which staff must be hired as well
- Oversight of the private staff in a family office, along with estate managers, housekeepers and nannies — more than 40 in all
According to Hollywood Reporter, “A staff can cost $200,000 to $300,000 or more a year. “The $5 million to $10 million [earners] can do that,” says a business manager of megaclients.”
An “estate manager” can expect to earn between $150,000 – $250,000 in a year. A manager of multiple estates may make half a million in a year. A lower on the totem pole, personal assistant, like me, can expect to make nearly six figures.
Why are these staff paid such high salaries?
Anyone in the industry knows there is a great chance that they will be roped into late nights, disruptions to their schedule, and good deal of intrusion into one’s personal time. Rarely is it a purely M-F 9-6p role.
Case Study 1: The Personal Assistant to Puff Daddy
You may remember that during the 90s Puff Daddy was making his mark as ultra demanding and obnoxious usurper of young people’s dreams on a TV show on VH1 called “I want to work for Diddy.”
Well after this show faded away, he returned to the traditional method of hiring personal assistants, and one of my industry acquaintances used to work for him, Her assistant job required her to completely stave off any romantic relationships or close friendships because at any given minute she could be expected to pack up and be on the move, along with Puff Daddy and his entourage, to his next location.
She was grateful for the experience as she now could attain any PA job that she wanted. She had put her years in, sacrificed much of her youth, and as you can imagine in anyone that works for Puff Daddy, she was immaculately well groomed and genetically gifted with a lot of physical beauty – so this was no small sacrifice on her part. She was part and parcel a part of Puff Daddy’s public representation and she played her part without complaint.
However, by the time I met her, years later after she left the job, I found her in a much less demanding role. I was interviewing for a tutoring role, and to get to her office we had to pass through much of the children’s floor. You heard me, “floor,” and it had 20+ foot ceilings, on the penthouse level of building, that allowed for a large trampoline, often more commonly found in the backyards of the suburbs. Obviously, she was still managing the household of a very wealthy, Manhattan family, but she was working in one location and grateful to finally have begun dating again for the first time since leaving her assistant role with Puff Daddy. It was quite clear that she would never pick up a role like that again.
Case Study 2: The Live-in Nanny to an Actress
The live-in nanny is a much maligned role in our industry because anytime you live in someone’s household you can expect to hear knocks on your door outside of your originally agreed upon work hours. Fortunately I haven’t met many live-in, so perhaps it is a role that many families are dispensing of in good faith? -of wanting their nannies to have more “me time” – or perhaps because the elite now arrange for multiple nannies who work together to provide more 24/7 support. Either way, I’m glad to see this is a job type that is fading.
Of the few live-ins that I know most are baby nannies, which makes sense. They are set to help with midnight upsets, so the parents can rest through the nights peacefully. I don’t see this as unsightly because I understand that with more dual earner households than ever, it may make sense for both parents to be able to sleep, as their earnings far outweigh the wage the nanny is making – and sometimes the nannies want the free housing. Many foreign nannies are sending some of their earnings back home, so anything they can save is worth the lack of privacy. Others are saving up as much as possible to be able to return to their home country to purchase a home to retire in.
The closest live-in nanny that I have befriended through my work is one that I used to arrange play dates with. She worked for a wealthy family with two elementary age children. They had the most beautiful loft apartment – large playroom, a kitchen the size of most 1 bedroom apartments, that overlooked the quadruple sized living space with floor to ceiling windows that overlooked the waterfront. Black iron and rich, dark wood finishings accented the otherwise whiteboxed space, allowing for a interplay of white, black, and light. The playroom was lined with swings, rows and rows of shelving labeled and filled with every genre of you, and a walk-in costume closet that held enough of every type of costume that a playdate of three could all be firemen.
Working for an actress and the owner of a large real estate development firm, her employers’ erratic travel and work schedules made it hard for her to plan for personal time. She was given a bedroom off of the children’s wing of the apartment. Although she was supposed to have the weekends off, it was too easy with her living there for her employers to knock on her door to ask, “Do you mind watching the kids for a minute while I run out to get flowers?” or “Could you help me in the kitchen?” Anyone that has ever nannied before knows that this doesn’t mean just a few minutes’ help; it means hours with no end time in sight. The only good fortune lay in her amazingly having the time to keep a boyfriend with an apartment in West Chester, where she could escape to some weekends.
Case Study 3: I Almost Became a Life Coach to a Teenager
I was set to be offered a nearly six figure job to work 3.5 days a week… but for every second of those 3.5 days, I was expected to be at the beck and call of the hiring family – deal or no deal? I’d be sleeping over in the staff quarters and accompanying the family on half of their trips overseas, alternating with the child’s other life coach. Never mind my being married, or my natural born freedom as a citizen of these United States, I was theirs from check-in to checkout 3.5 days a week.
No amount of time off between these shifts could offset the crippling sense of servitude I found inherent in such a scheme. Truthfully I did consider the role for a second, thinking of the adventures this kind of commitment would entail. Trips overseas with the wealthiest of the wealthy. But… when I asked whether I might have an hour to myself during my shifts to go for a run, to help me clear my mind for the day, and was told no, I knew this was a family that cared not for the welfare of their staff. Every family should afford their staff at least an hour respite in a day. This was beyond me.
Will You Take the Job?
Despite the seeming horror I have spun for you today with these tales, as my friend Damon noted to me this week as I told him about my job, “We’re all slaves to someone else.” Whether you are working in an office of a mega corporation or a freelancer on the move, we are all working for someone else. It’s how progress occurs and how we earn our keep.
I’m proud of my work. Whether it’s for a single household family, a disorganized non-profit, or unpaid and voluntary, I love what I put out there to help others, and hopefully improve the world. I don’t do anything that compromises my ethics, and I’m as careful in my screening of employers as they are of me. My last employer makes films exposing the horrors of a lack of women’s rights on a global scale, and I’m glad that in supporting her on the homefront that she can focus on fighting injustices with her coverage of the subject.
So yes, I will take the job. I see a lot of room for growth in this role, so as much as I will be helping them, they will be helping me. I am certainly anxious in taking on a job with a new family. There is so much to learn about how to help them run their lives. There will be criticisms as I make incorrect assumptions that lead to my doing something in the wrong way, but hopefully they are offered with care and empathy. Hopefully verbal thanks are offered when I do something helpful, even if I am being paid to do so. These small courtesies go a long way.
The Help with Her Own Help
In keeping a domestic staff, to an extent, ourselves, with the work exchange program that we offer at our Bnb, I’m well aware to speak to our volunteers with respect. Even if they do something wrong. Even if they show disrespect, I’m careful to handle the situation graciously calmly explaining why I am upset with something that they have done, and explaining to them that I’m glad to offer whatever support they need to be able to perform a task correctly. It’s the least one can do when you consider all the help these people offer to our lives.