When Your Family Is Someone’s Boss

When we work outside of the home, the roles of employer and employee are clearly delineated, with oversight by state and federal laws and agencies, often with HR departments to oversee their enforcement. When we employ others in our own households, however, even though state and federal laws also apply, it can be harder to view our home as someone else’s workplace. Fortunately, we have Jewish ethical teachings to guide us in this employee-employer relationship.

Home employment, by its very nature, is extremely intimate. Since ancient times, those employed by families have completed very personal responsibilities, from Abraham’s servant securing Isaac’s future wife (Genesis 24) to Rebekah’s former wet nurse who accompanies her into her new life with Isaac (Gen. 24:59) to the later example of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s maid who recognizes it was time for him to die (BT K’tubot 104a). As much as we need to be able to trust those we invite to work in our homes, we must recognize the great confidence the employee places in us to treat them with respect and to ensure their safety as they enter our homes, isolated behind closed doors.

Protecting our employees’ physical safety by upholding the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, literally “saving a life,” broadly applied to mean avoiding endangerment of a person’s health or safety, is primary. For example, this value directs us to ensure our employees’ health by outfitting them with the appropriate safety precautions, like good-quality gloves and masks when they are caring for the sick and safe cleaning products and proper ventilation when they are cleaning our homes. Creating a reasonable list of responsibilities for an employee is also part of protecting their health. If the employment involves working at odd hours, we must consider if the employee will have a safe method to get home. If the answer is no, then you, the employer, should provide cab money as part of the compensation.

Not only must the family employer be reasonable in the expectations of an employee’s responsibilities and the task performed, but we must also be judicious in the hours of employment. As described by the Talmud, commenting on Deuteronomy 24:15, workers may be willing to take jobs with dangerous tasks because they need the money desperately (BT Bava M’tzia 112a). We should also be aware that such need disempowers the employee from objecting when the family employer lengthens or switches work hours. Sometimes we unwittingly replicate the worst of corporate practices when we are family employers. Deviating from the set expectation for a worker’s hours is also an ancient issue discussed in the Talmud, which warns against hiring workers and then instructing them to work earlier or later than the local custom. The Talmud also warns against giving employees a raise and then demanding they work beyond their regular work the extra money is for the quality of work, unless it is clearly stated when the extra money is given that the expectation is that the worker will stay outside of the regular workday (BT Bava M’tzia 83a). The family employer must be clear about work hours and responsibilities.

Pikuach nefesh should also lead the family employer to help full-time employees (and perhaps, in part, limited-service employees) obtain health insurance and to include paid sick days. While concern for your employee’s health should be the motivating force behind these benefits, they also protect the employer by helping the employee to be healthy and to stay at home when sick. Pension also falls under the category of pikuach nefesh, as this financial safety net can make a huge difference in the quality of life one has in retirement. Unfortunately, among privately employed caregivers, only one in ten participates in an employer pension plan.

Paying a worker on time is highlighted in the Holiness Code, in Leviticus 19:13, “The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning,” and in the related text of Deuteronomy 24:15, “You must pay out the wages due on the same day, before the sun sets, for the worker is needy and urgently depends on it….” The law to pay the worker on the same day is explored and expanded in the Babylonian Talmud (Bava M’tzia 111a–113a). The family employer should not only pay the employee promptly at the proper time, but should also consider the best method of payment so that the employee does not incur high fees to access the money. Your employee may not have a regular bank account, a privilege many of us take for granted. If you provide payment in the form of a check, your employee may have to use a check-cashing service, which can charge exploitive fees as high as eight dollars per check.

in Deuteronomy 24:15, “You must pay out the wages due on the same day, before the sun sets, for the worker is needy and urgently depends on it….”

Because of the intimate relationship between employer and employee in the household, the family employer may become aware of financial struggles plaguing the employee. Therefore, the employer may want to support the worker with offerings of tzedakah, either in the form of material items or money. However, it is vital not to confuse tzedakah for paying a living wage. Giving an employee tzedakah, either directly or indirectly in the form of a gift or interest- free loan (as Maimonides instructs for cases in which giving tzedakah directly may cause embarrassment), must stay in the realm of tzedakah and not be mistaken for appropriate compensation or a raise.

The people we employ in our households do vital work. We entrust these employees with our most precious beloveds, our children and our parents. Working in our homes, these employees deserve safe work conditions, a living wage, the assurance of health insurance and retirement benefits, and control over their work hours. We, the family employer, must see our homes as their place of employment, ensuring these basic rights.

From The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, edited by Rabbi Mary L. Zamore © 2019 by Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Used by permission of Central Conference of American Rabbis. All rights reserved.