The ethics of cutting household help

(Dave Calver / For the Times)

As unemployment escalates and Americans face uncertain futures, cost-cutting has become the new national pastime. Coupon-clipping is in. Big-ticket items and indulgences are out -- as are many of the home-related services so many Southern Californians have come to rely on. Whether a nanny or a gardener, a handyman or a cleaning lady, household hired help is often the first to go.

But giving up a $4 latte has less personal, and less immediate, ramifications than letting go a human being -- frequently an undocumented worker -- who has been providing services inside that sanctuary we call home. And it brings up an interesting moral dilemma: Save yourself or look out for the little guy? Is it possible to do both?

We asked Tom Beaudoin, associate professor of practical theology at Fordham University in New York and author of the book “Consuming Faith: Integrating Who We Are With What We Buy.”

When times get tough, what’s the ethically appropriate action for a person who employs household help?

You’re asking a really hard question: How do people think about what they should do? Let’s first realize why that’s such a hard question. We have built an economy that allows us to lie to ourselves about how much we exploit human beings who don’t show up on the radar screen. This situation forces that front and center, and that’s why we feel ethically confused.

Is there a right decision? And, if so, how do we make it?

An important part of making the right decision here is empathy with the invisible labor market with which we each participate. So if we employ folks who clean our houses or cut our lawns or haul our garbage for us, and we are thinking about cutting them off to save money, I would say: Think about the ethical responsibilities. These are relationships we have. They’re not just transactions.

Is there a way to reconcile the personal relationship with the financial transaction, especially when we fear for our own future?

There’s a way to reconfigure that economic relationship so that we don’t unnecessarily hurt people by a lack of creative thinking. If we are thinking of letting somebody go, is there a way that we can maybe split the time of someone who’s cleaning our house or mowing the lawn with somebody else? If we need to reduce that person’s work, can we ask a neighbor to maybe take on a couple more hours a week for this person or make some kind of pledge to the person that once the economy gets back in shape, we’re going to be back there for them?

I would rather people consider paying in kind rather than totally letting someone go, if that’s going to put a worker at risk. If you can’t pay a full amount, can you pay in other ways, with food or services? Think creatively about how you can still remunerate this kind of work.

This is all at the level of individual choices, which is not where we’re going to solve this issue. It’s a matter of making laws and community responses that say, “We won’t tolerate an invisible and exploited class of workers who are mostly immigrants.” The sins of our economy are putting us in a really hard spot as individuals.

Are American workers hypocritical? We expect a safety net when our employment is terminated, yet we’re perfectly fine with not providing one to the people we’ve had working in our own homes?

The hypocrisy is so profound as to be almost incomprehensible, but you don’t get much traction in middle class and wealthy America by talking about hypocrisy. I would rather focus on empathy. The only long-term solution is to focus not so much on hypocrisy but on telling the truth about our economy and asking people to realize that their personal economy as well as the larger community and national economy only work because a whole lot of people are being robbed. As an American citizen, I have no right to take more than my share of someone else’s life, yet we’ve set up an economy that makes us each feel entitled to that right.

You’re a theologian, so I would presume empathy comes naturally. How do you encourage empathy in people who may not be so inclined?

Whatever your spirituality or lack of spirituality, we need to talk to one another about how our economy makes us adversarial. Anybody can be ethical without being spiritual or religious. As Americans, we like to think we’re in control of our lives and decisions, but it’s crucial to think through how our economy forces us to want to take advantage of those who will do the most work for the least amount of money. I think the short-term thing is to examine yourself and ask if your freedom is compromised by this forced adversariality and how much you participate in that.

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