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Domestic worker sues Atherton couple

The couple denies the allegations

A 69-year-old housekeeper has filed a federal lawsuit against an Atherton couple, claiming the pair engaged in illegal employment practices by requiring her to work long hours at far below minimum wage for four years. She is seeking $120,000 in damages.

The couple is denying the allegations, but not commenting further, said their attorney, Elizabeth Tippett of Palo Alto-based Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

Vilma Serralta of San Mateo, who brought the suit, led a group of domestic workers in a protest march along Isabella Avenue in Atherton on Thursday, March 13, that culminated in a press conference in front of the home of Sakhawat and Roomy Khan. The 9,400-square-foot home is currently on the market with an asking price of $17.9 million.

Ms. Serralta said that as a live-in domestic worker for the Khans for four years, she worked 13- and 14-hour days, six or seven days a week, without being paid overtime, or even minimum wage.

"It is the responsibility of anyone who decides to employ someone to learn the basics of employment law," said Carole Vigne, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center in San Francisco. "Clearly, her employers are sophisticated people. We don't have too much information about (them), but we do know they work from home and appear to run their own business."

Ms. Vigne said damages owed to Ms. Serralta amount to at least $120,000. She was paid a monthly salary of $1,000 to $1,300, amounting to hourly wages of less than $3 to $4 per hour, far below the California minimum wage of $6.75 per hour, Ms. Vigne said.

While Ms. Serralta is a U.S. citizen, California labor laws apply to everyone, regardless of immigration or citizenship status, said Ms. Vigne.

In Ms. Serralta's complaint, filed in the Northern District of California federal court on March 13, she said she worked long hours cleaning the Khans' large home, preparing meals and caring for their young daughter. She said the Khans yelled at her and called her "stupid," but she stayed because she had grown attached to the child, Ms. Vigne said.

It was only after she was arbitrarily fired in September 2006 that Ms. Serralta learned that her treatment was illegal, Ms. Vigne said.

Language barriers and cultural differences are among the reasons many domestic workers are unaware of their rights or are afraid to complain, Ms. Vigne said.

"Also, because they work in private homes and don't have coworkers, there is just the isolation from other people. That condition is worsened when they are working such long hours and they live in the home," she said.

Ms. Vigne said it's likely that Ms. Serralta's situation is not terribly different from that of many other domestic workers in wealthy communities such as Atherton. The lawsuit and the protest march, it is hoped, will shine a light on similar situations going on behind closed doors, she said.

"I do not want revenge. I simply want justice. And I do not want for anyone else to go through what I did," Ms. Serralta said in a press release.

Comments

Posted by Joanna, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 14, 2008 at 8:19 pm

Ms. Serralta was taken advantage of. There is no question about it.

I hope the Khans pay dearly. I also hope that other "Atherton families" who practice similar lifestyles change their ways.

I am glad that this is being brought to the light. Ms. Serralta is certainly not the only one who suffered/suffers such conditions.


Posted by Diana, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Mar 15, 2008 at 2:37 pm

If you think this kind of treatment is acceptable then you are ridiculous. The mistreatment by upper class families to their domestic staff is unacceptable. If you can afford multi-million dollar homes, then you can afford to pay the one who actually cleans your home and raises your children a decent wage.

If you think she is trying to raise a commotion for media attention, then I dare you to try her job for a day. Leave your pompous attitude at the door and allow yourself to be subjected to the every whim of another individual.


Posted by Steve, a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Mar 17, 2008 at 6:28 pm

In cases like this, it is easy to get caught up in the emotions of the moment. $4 an hour doen't sound like much, but they provided her room and board...which for a 60+ year old woman must have been worth MORE than she was making per hour (especially in an ATHERTON address). And come on, watching her kid after school couln't have been too big a chore...I mean..they worked from home...so they were there too.

And I kind of doubt they were "cracking the whip" to hard on this old lady...I mean, you can only get so much blood out of a stone. If they wanted slave labor, they could have gotton younger/stronger with looking too hard.

This sounds like a typical case of someone getting fired, and taking their sour grapes out on someone that they consider "rich" and and "easy target". This is definitly a favorite target of the ACIL and other liberal groups who love getting themselves all wrapped up in this type of witch hunt.

Bummer they're moving...must have really messed up their rally!


Posted by Mira, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Mar 18, 2008 at 8:37 am

A word of advice, Steve. If you want to engage in provocative satire, learn a little from the pros. You might start with Swift. Good luck.


Posted by Aghast, a resident of Portola Valley: Los Trancos Woods/Vista Verde
on Mar 18, 2008 at 10:16 am

The Almanac article says she was "arbitrarily fired." The Chronicle reported that she was fired for not taking out the garbage one night (I'll bet it was after one of her 14-hour workdays) and one of these royal humanitarians complained that the chicken bones smelled. Is there a special room in hell for this kind of behavior?


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