For three years, an 84-year-old domestic worker was “chronically underpaid” as she cared for an Alzheimer’s patient in her Gravesend home. This week, New York State’s Department of Labor recovered more than $271,527 in unpaid wages, one of the largest payouts ever secured by the department.
The standout case does not represent an uncommon story, according to local politicians and domestic workers groups.
The complaint and the payout
According to the DOL, the complainant, who was not named, was hired by brothers Charles and Habib Tawil as a “domestic worker and companion” for their elderly mother, Marcelle, in her Gravesend home. She was expected to bathe, change, and feed Marcelle, who had Alzheimer’s disease, and take care of household chores.
When the complainant, a Colombian immigrant, was hired for the job in 2015, she thought the responsibilities were “reasonable,” especially for the pay she had been promised — but soon found out she and the Habibs had different expectations for her salary.
“I believed that I earned a lot, you see I wasn’t very educated, so I thought I was making $8,000 and it turns out that it was only $300 that I earned a month,” she said in Spanish in a statement.
She spent three years working round-the-clock in Marcelle’s home, being paid just $260 per week for an average of 115 hours of work, and often went months without being paid.
“In the end, when the years passed, they no longer brought food, I had to look after her alone and I was often going hungry,” the complainant said. “I was there all day and all night with her. There was no one going to visit, no nurses, no one came by. And I would let Mr. Habib know, but they wouldn’t come, they wouldn’t visit her.”
Eventually, a second worker was hired to care for Marcelle alongside the complainant. After not being paid for two months, the new employee filed a complaint with the DOL, and encouraged the complainant to do the same.
Domestic workers like home health aides or “companions” for older people are often underpaid and exploited, said city councilmember Crystal Hudson, who represents parts of north and central Brooklyn and chairs the council’s Committee on Aging. They often lack the protections provided by a more “traditional” workplace.
“Even things like paid time off, or sick time, vacation time, things like that, most of these folks don’t have protections,” she said. “They don’t receive paid time off generally speaking. It obviously depends on the family, but there are many families who are exploitative of domestic workers.”
The complainant was released from her position when Marcelle died in 2018, before she contacted the department. Out of a job, she realized she no longer had any money to send home to her family in Colombia, and contacted the DOL’s Division of Labor Standards, who notified the Habib family.
The department went back-and-forth with the family for three years and, in 2021, informed them it would be issuing an Order to Comply.
Marcelle’s estate released the unpaid funds to the DOL in June 2022, and they have since been given to the worker. The department also connected her with its Division of Immigrant Policies and Affairs, which contacted the Colombian consulate to help her return home.
“Withholding rightfully-earned wages from workers is unacceptable, and won’t be tolerated in New York State,” said DOL Commissioner Roberta Reardon. “I applaud this victim for coming forward and hope her story inspires others to act. It is our mission to safeguard the rights of all workers in New York State.”
The story behind the decision
The seemingly-straightforward case — a domestic worker with limited options being exploited — is part of a much larger story involving the Tawil family.
In December 2020, Charles Tawil filed a lawsuit against his brother Habib in Kings County Supreme Court, of carrying out a “deliberate and relentless campaign to financially and emotionally cripple” Charles.
In the complaint, Charles alleges that his brother fraudulently appointed himself as Marcelle’s “attorney-in-fact,” but refused to provide proper care for their mother. In 2009, when Marcelle, Habib and Charles were all living separately in New Jersey, police performed a wellness check on Marcelle, according to court documents.
They found her living in “deplorable” conditions, with no water, gas, or telephone service, and Adult Protective Services was called. A police report on the incident notes that Habib had power of attorney.
Years later, Habib “refused to hire a fully licensed nurse” to care for Marcelle, according to the complaint, instead hiring the 84-year-old domestic worker.
Habib did not respond to requests for comment.
“Unsurprisingly, this led to Marcelle’s demise as she was improperly and negligently taken care of,” Charles said in the complaint. “In addition, Habib still was not paying the maid and/or other caretakers and the Department of Labor, New York State, is pursuing Habib for his delinquencies.”
Marcelle died suffering from bedsores as a result of not being cared for and turned properly as she laid in bed, according to the lawsuit and photos filed in court.
Charles was named in the complaint because he was a beneficiary of his father’s will, he told Brooklyn Paper, but his brother was responsible for his mother’s care and for paying her caregiver. He testified on the worker’s behalf in the DOL case, confirming that she had been underpaid. Many families in the neighborhood employ domestic workers, he said, usually at a rate of about $600 per week.
“[Habib] should have given her $50,000 in severance just for taking care of my mother,” he said. “He wouldn’t hire a real nurse … and she wasn’t even capable herself, but she’s an old lady, she didn’t have papers.”
In June, Habib’s lawyer asked that he be allowed by the court to withdraw as counsel because Habib had not paid for more than 250 hours of legal work, and owed more than $125,000 to the firm.
The court has ordered Habib to pay damages for part of the lawsuit, said Charles’ lawyer, Robert J. Hantman, and the exact dollar amounts are still being worked out.
“This is the most horrendous case I’ve ever seen in over 47 years,” Hantman said. “It’s the epitome of evil and vindictiveness. And justice will be served.”
Larger issues for New York’s domestic workers and their clients
Though the details of the case are uncommon, mistreatment of domestic workers and home health aides is not — nor is the desperation of families who need someone to help care for their loved ones.
New York state is facing a massive shortage of home health aides — low pay and difficult working conditions exacerbated by the pandemic has made it difficult for agencies and families to find the help they need. Whether aides are employed through an agency or independently by a family, it can be difficult to regulate the industry and for employees to know and advocate for their rights.
“We need to have codified workplace and worker protections for people who work in people’s homes,” Hudson said. “We definitely need to standardize the care industry in that way so employers are still being held accountable in the way traditional workplace employers are.”
Those issues are not unique to home health aides — the worker hired by the Tawils was not a licensed aide, but faced many of the same issues — as do nannies, housekeepers, and other people who work in private homes.
All domestic workers in New York State are entitled to at least minimum wage, overtime pay, and at least one day off per week, under the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, and some are also entitled to Worker’s Compensation insurance and Disability Benefits Insurance.
At the start of the pandemic in 2020 — before Hudson was elected to the city council — she started a mutual aid group to support her community. Many of the people who needed groceries and other resources were domestic workers who were being paid under-the-table and were suddenly left with no income and no support.
A permanent, city-sponsored relief and benefits fund for domestic workers could help to keep people afloat in emergencies, Hudson said. Workers would pay into the publicly-subsidized fund, and could then dip into the money if they were suddenly out of work.
“There aren’t many single families — meaning an independent family that’s not tied to a larger corporation — who can afford, necessarily, to pay worker’s comp, health insurance, life insurance, all the options and benefits you get when you work for big corporations,” she said.
She also supports the Fair Pay for Home Care Workers Act, which was introduced in the state Senate earlier this year but did not pass before the end of the legislative session. Closer to home, city councilmember Christopher Marte in February introduced a bill that would cap the number of hours home health aides can work in a given shift.
As the population of older adults living in New York increases, improving conditions and easing the shortage of home care workers is critical, Hudson said, as is ensuring families can access affordable care for their loved ones.
“Women are definitely more likely to get Alzheimer’s, people of color, specifically, are more likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia,” she said. “When you think about the workforce in the care economy, those are overwhelmingly women and people of color. If we had better resources and standards and protections, we would be protecting a lot of folks who are most vulnerable in our society.”
For more information on withheld funds or to file a claim with the Department of Labor, visit their website.