When Caring Goes to Court
Sometimes, however, the provision of care—or its failure—becomes a matter of legal contention. When vital services, strong personal ties, rights, obligations, and financial stakes coincide, intense disputes concerning who owes what to whom often break out. Such disputes can easily go to court. If personal care forms the pivot of the questioned relationship, legal conflicts can easily become both tangled and fiery. They include such esoteric questions as the misuse 
of confidential information by personal assistants or personal trainers, embezzlement or blackmail by private secretaries, or medical malpractice. However, they also arise over the very same kinds of everyday relations we have been reviewing: over compensation for unpaid or underpaid personal or medical care; over expenditures for child care as tax-deductible business expenses, over alimony, and much more. The disputes become all the more intense because the division of labor with respect to caring so regularly falls along the lines of age, gender, race, ethnicity, and class. The outcomes of such disputes have weighty economic and personal consequences for those involved.
From the wide array of relevant disputes, let us select just a few that exemplify legal conflicts arising from the mingling of economic transactions and intimate personal care: disputes concerning a domestic worker’s unpaid wages, the taxability of personal care, inheritance claims over care, legitimate compensation for family care, and compensation for loss of care in accident cases.
When relations between unpaid or poorly paid live-in caregivers and their employers go sour, for example, what had been private blowups within the household sometimes become matters of bitter contention in open court. The 1980 District of Columbia U. S. District Court case of Gabina Camacho Lopez illustrates the point dramatically (Lopez v. Rodriguez; 500 F. Supp. 79 (D. D.C. 1980)). Born of a Bolivian Indian family around 1957, Gabina Lopez went to school for five years but by the age of twelve was working full time as a maid. In January 1976, she took a job with Felipe and Esther Rodriguez in Cochabamba, Bolivia. In the Rodriguezes’ house, Gabina not only did housework but also took care of three Rodriguez grandchildren who were living in Cochabamba while their parents, Manuel and Mirtha, the Rodriguezes’ son and daughter-inlaw, were working in the Washington, DC, area.
Later that year, Mirtha Rodriguez visited Bolivia. After consulting with Gabina and her relatives, she recruited nineteen-year-old Ga – bina as her housekeeper and nanny, thus making it possible for the Rodriguezes to take their three children back with them. In this process, Gabina, an illegal immigrant to the United States, found herself sequestered by the Rodriguezes’ practices and her slight knowledge of English. For almost three years, Gabina cooked, cleaned, and took care of the Rodriguezes’ children: “She worked seven (7) days per week, ten (10) to twelve (12) hours per day, without vacation or time off except occasional shopping trips or social visits with either or both of the [Rodriguezes] and usually with their children” (81).
During those years, Gabina never left the Rodriguez home alone. As compensation, the Rodriguezes provided her with room and board, “miscellaneous clothing and toiletries, medical expenses and minimal pocket money” (81). They told Gabina they were depositing her wages in the bank. In 1979, after the Rodriguezes refused Gabina’s demands to obtain her money, while also preventing her from making friends or attending church, Gabina sued them under the Fair Labor Standards Act, claiming her unpaid wages.
Obviously, the Lopez case raised questions of justice and exploitation. But the court case pivoted on whether Gabina qualified as an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Rodriguezes denied she was their employee, but Lopez’s attorneys insisted that she was precisely an underpaid, exploited employee. Indeed, they pointed out, the Rodriguezes had claimed a child-care credit of $900 on their 1976 income tax return for Gabina’s household services. Gabina’s lawyers claimed not only that the couple had violated the law by paying less than the minimum wage but also that they had illegally made Lopez work overtime and withheld the bulk of her wages to boot.
The court thus had to decide whether to treat Gabina Lopez’s relationship to the Rodriguezes as a regular employment contract subject to the law governing all such contracts. Despite rebuffing the claims for overtime wages, the District Court ruled resoundingly in favor of Lopez. The Rodriguezes, the court declared, “failed to demonstrate a good faith effort to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act. They exploited for their own purposes a young, poorly educated, native alien who was completely at their whim and mercy” (81). The various courts involved eventually awarded Gabina her minimum wage of $28,000 and an equal amount in damages plus court costs, less the amount that the Rodriguezes had actually spent on board and lodging. Hondagneu-Sotelo (2001) describes the settlement as: “perhaps the highest such court award to any live-in housekeeper in the United States” (237).
As our earlier review of practices indicates, young Latin American women often migrate illegally to work as nannies, housekeepers, cooks, or maids for prosperous families. Occasionally they hit the headlines, as in 2001 when President-elect George W. Bush withdrew the nomination of Linda Chavez as secretary of labor on the public outcry over Chavez’s lodging of Marta Mercado, an illegal Guatemalan immigrant as a “house guest.” Only incidentally, according to Chavez, did Mercado do laundry, perform housework, take care of children, and receive spending money (New York Times 2001). Most such relationships never surface. But now and then, as in the Gabina Lopez case, they become the subject of weighty legal proceedings (see Banks 1999; Lobel 2001; Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001: chap. 8).
Note two features of the legal dispute. First, no one denied that Lopez had actually provided care to the Rodriguezes and their children, or even that she received little monetary compensation for that care. The question was in what relation to the Rodriguez family she provided that care. Second, the court made an essentially dichotomous choice: either Gabina Lopez was a valued household member performing her duties free of charge and receiving the usual consideration and support due a family member or she was an employee in the commercial service sector and therefore subject to the laws governing wages and employer-worker relations. The courts accepted Lopez’s lawyers’ arguments that her relationship to the Rodriguezes fell into the second category. She and they collected.