weigh in, please

So here’s the sitchy aiy shun. Remember all that stuff I told you about Jovita asking for money? Without doing anything beyond what I reported, she stopped asking. For weeks now, there have been zero requests. It’s been lovely.

But then on Wednesday when we were saying goodbye, she informed me she wouldn’t be coming on Friday (because it’s Chamelco Official Birthday holiday) and would I please pay her for her day off. Sure, take the day off, I said, but I’ll have to talk to my husband about the pay. Her request caught me off guard, and playing the subservient (snort) wife was the fastest way out.

After she left, I stomped around the house, grumbling and mumbling. I’m your classic, uptight North American so I fall to pieces when people pull last minute plan changes on me. (You ought to see what happens when taxis stand us up, ha. It sends my non-scheduled husband into a freakout tailspin, so you can only imagine what it does to me.) Plus, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being had.

I asked another gringo if Friday is a paid holiday, and he said it is, but only for salaried workers. Then I asked our landlord. She confirmed what the gringo friend told us, and then said that some of their workers showed up and others didn’t. Only the ones that came to work got paid, but choosing to take the day off was acceptable, too. Such is the life of the hourly worker. (Whether or not those hourly workers ought to get salary benefits is a whole other issue.)

I want to be generous with our house help. I try to treat Jovita respectfully and to give her some extra benefits that she might not get at another house. But at the same time, I want to follow local customs.

Part of me says, “Good grief, what’s the big deal? It’s only forty quetzales! She has seven children, her husband got laid off, she does a fabulous job, she’s reliable, and she never (at least for the last month) asks for anything. Cut the woman some slack, will you?”

But another part of me says, “But this isn’t about me. It’s about how Guatemalans perceive North Americans as money-throw-abouts. Sticking by my guns and following local customs will be one for the Humanity Home Team. Because this is about dignity. By upholding the guidelines and being generous within them, I’m demonstrating that I am not to be taken advantage of. And by expecting her to hold up her end of the deal, I am showing that I respect her.”

But maybe that’s cold?

Maybe it’s better to give her the money so that we have The Good Feeling Thing that is so important in this culture?

But maybe that Good Feeling comes at the expense of True Good Feelings that come from treating each other with dignity? Maybe I’m the one who has to play the toughie in order to bring our relationship to a deeper level, one in which we both respect each other as people?

Maybe I’m full of crap and it doesn’t matter what I do?

And what about all those bothersome Jesus teachings about Giving It All Away and Helping Anyone Who Asks?

Please, what do you make of this? My husband is exhausted by my on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand hashing out and is no help whatsoever. Maybe your Sunday school class could give this a go-over and arrive at some brilliant solution?

Jovita comes at eight o’clock Monday morning. I need to have a response by then.


  • Anonymous

    You said you want to "give her some extra benefits that she might not get at another house. But at the same time, I want to follow local customs." I vote for giving her the "extra benefit" and not worrying about following local customs. You are there as a representative of Christ and your church. Ask yourself "What would Jesus do?" and you probably will find your answer pretty quickly. As others noted, the monetary differences between the third world countries and the US are enormous; even most "poor" people here have more than your maid does. Also, you are there partially through the generosity of others, as Dr. Perfection pointed out. If you'd feel better about it, tell her you checked with others and know that hourly wage workers don't get paid for the day off(just like in the US), but that you have decided that you want to give her a gift because she does such a fabulous job. That way you won't feel taken advantage of and she won't see you a patsy, but you can still be generous. After all, it's only two bags of cereal worth.

  • Anonymous

    One of the best and kindest Christians that I have ever known once told me, "We are here to be taken advantage of." Certainly, Christ was "taken advantage of" when he died for the sins of everyone who ever lived, is living now, or will live in the future. You are there for a short period of time and if you can bless this woman abundantly, then I say, go for it. In the meantime, you get help with housework that you won't have when you return home.

    • Anonymous

      Beautifully said! In my opinion, of all the comments so far this comes closest to the spirit of the teachings of the Christ. And dr. perfection — I love your comment too. ~Sherry

  • The Stepmom

    Just from my own personal experience (which admittedly is far different from someone's in a third world country)… I work two, part time jobs to pay the bills. Both of them allow me to take time off, but neither pay me for that time. I have learned to work around this. There have been many times when things were very tight, that I have chosen, much to my own disappointment, to work holidays and get paid. While not fun, this was what I had to do to make ends meet. Other times I've chosen to take the time off and deal with the cut in income. Given the past history with her and her current situation, what comes to my mind is that if she was truly in need of the money she could simply work that day and the immediate dilemma would be solved.

    With that said, I totally get that there are cultural and situational differences here. So, I like the "happy" medium of offering half pay. I'm looking forward to hearing what you've decided.

  • dr perfection

    I say err on the side of generosity and kindness. Give her the day and tell her it is from me, since I gave you money to go there.

  • Blair

    I think I would ask her to sit down with you and go through the calendar so that she can tell you in advance what days she considers "holidays" and will be taking off. Then explain to her that you need more advance notice of these special "holidays" but it just is not in your weekly budget for her to give you just two days notice. That way she will understand you are not made of money and will not be taken advantage of, but will also give her the opportunity to take off days that she considers "necessary" to observe.

  • ndingli

    I've been in this situation and come to the conclusion that there is no right answer. Even when you are MCC and don't feel like you have money, you do have more money and everyone around you knows it. And when you start giving, it usually doesn't end with just one request. I often felt taken advantage of. But that that being said, it might not matter . I'm not sure that with all the historical privilege and power we have, that we get to have a solution that "feels good". I always erred (sometimes really erred) on the side of kindness. Some people I know, have done contracts that include an agreed upon number of paid leave days. It might also depend on how many benefits you provide (like do you pay healthcare or school fees). I always came back to the conclusion that I can't fix the larger injustice but could help the people that I came in contact with.

  • Anonymous

    It is risky to set uncomfortable precedents. For example,if this time is okay, why isn't next time okay! I would explain to her that because she is an hourly worker, she is not paid for the day off. When you and your family are about to leave, if you feel she has been an asset to you and you would like to reward her for her hard work and loyalty, then, I would say it would be appropriate to give her a parting monetary gift. She will appreciate it and you will feel better about giving it! Good Luck, Angela Muller

    • Anonymous

      Sit down with her…or make your husband (!!) and offer her a bonus when you leave if she deserves it but let her know that you get paid for the hours you work…money isn't free….even in America.

  • Michelle @ Give a Girl a Fig

    Maybe you could let her know that you checked into what is customary because you wanted to be sure and treat her fairly…it's customary to take the day off without pay. It does sound like she's taking advantage a bit..I wonder if she'd ask a Guatemalan woman the same thing?

  • the domestic fringe

    Well, we're in America, land of the free and abundant and my husband doesn't get any paid days off, not even national holidays, so…

  • Donna

    Well, since you are already paying her over the going rate….remind her she does not get paid holidays. Perhaps a tip would be in order now and then when she goes above and beyond. She should not see you as having deep pockets!

  • Melissa @ thelittlegrayhouse

    If I had seven children I would jump at any chance to spend a day off with them be it holiday or not. I agree with the above comment that in doing so she must sacrifice the day's pay and the families weekly budget is affected. Possibly God has placed you in her life at a difficult time for her and you can show his love by giving freely to her. Who cares what she may or may not perceive about North Americans. However, I do understand you don't want to feel taken advantage of. Please do tell us what you decide to do.

  • Anonymous

    I was so fortunate to have a woman who helped and never asked for more than the agreed wage when we were in Brazil. However, we did have a separate person who did our laundry who sort of took advantage of us. But she had kids. She had a smoking habit. I don't know what our laundry money went for. All I knew is that she barely had a mattress to sleep on. We erred on the side of being stupid Americans. And I sleep just fine at night knowing that the 20 Reais were nothing to us, but a lot to her. Other Brazilians would laugh at that rate and not pay it. So, I really don't think that hourly rate will surge or the benefits of paid time off be revamped (though they could and should be) by your willingness to part with the precious Quetzales. Marcia Weaver

  • Lora

    The thing I have struggled the most with when I have lived in countries with significantly lower incomes and opportunities is the way that perceptions of wealth and poverty and concomitant sticky interactions dehumanize all involved. And it's funny (feel free to insert a slew of other words here) how the instinct to help, combined with the assumption that easiest fix is what is needed, can have lasting unintended consequences. (See also: Lora's TOMS rant.)

  • Sarah

    Classic. I think I decided a long time ago to just let it go. I'm not going to change anyone. I also think about my own job and all of the crap I pull. Hanging out with my husband who works next door, chit chatting with friends…oh and sometimes blogging. All on the clock. I think we forget sometimes how lenient our employers are with us (whether they know it or not) and I try to show the same sort of leniency with people who work for me. As long as everyone's getting their job done.

    I also think anyone who takes advantage of me has made a conscious decision to take advantage of me and if that's what they gotta to go get by, who am I to judge. I'd do a hell of a lot more if it meant feeding my kids. (Not that this is an issue of feeding her kids or not, but you know what I mean…)

  • Anonymous

    Plus it already sounds like you are paying her double the going rate of a full days work for 1/2 a day. I always go back to example of when a whole slew of Americans went to Haiti and paid double/triple the going rate to rent an apartment. Then no locals could afford a place bc prices pretty much went up across the board. If you want to be generous, give her something on her birthday or another very special holiday but follow the country's wage rates/work policies. -K.

  • Anonymous

    You should give her day off without pay if that is way country does it for hourly employees. Also, sit down with someone from there and work through all remaining holidays for your time there. Then go over them with her so she knows exactly what the deal is ahead of time and so you don't have the stress of trying to figure it out each time. -K.

  • Margo

    Do you have a gut feeling? I'm at sea here, but sometimes I know very deep down what the solution is and when I say it, I feel at peace. I know that's not the help you were asking for. . . wish I was teaching MYF tomorrow, I'd let 'em at it.

  • Kirsten

    I haven't been following all the history here, but I do think that if I were in Jovita's shoes as sole provider for my struggling family, I would certainly have given it a try. She's respected your request not to ask for money; now she's testing out the nuances of your employment agreement.

    You appreciate her work and it sounds like a little cash from you could go a long way for her. By taking time to celebrate with her family, she's cutting her budget for the week. But you also don't want to break with custom or be a pushover. Is it culturally appropriate to give occasional bonuses or gifts? Maybe it's about time for something like that -freely offered and unrelated to the holiday-to show your appreciation. It could be half pay, it could be double pay, it could be a new pair of shoes.

    But I'm just musing-my awareness of humanitarian ethics is limited. As is my understanding of keeping "the help" happy and productive. And how these two goals may interact…

  • You Can Call Me Jane

    "And what about all those bothersome Jesus teachings about Giving It All Away and Helping Anyone Who Asks?"

    If I'm going to err, I have to say I'd choose to err on Jesus' side.

  • Theresa

    That is a dilemma. Is there any way you could maybe offer her to work extra hours (like overtime) for more pay? Or tell her you'll give her holiday pay (time and a half) if she works the holiday? I'm just thinking that in the past when I was desperate for money, I was seeking more work in order to make more money. This way you wouldn't feel taken advantage of and she would get getting more income.

  • Anonymous

    I'm a 56 yo woman who recently found your blog. I was born and grew up in a third world country half way around the globe, daughter of missionary parents. As an adult I have often thought about how my parents dealt with their servants and the difficult issues inherent in these situations. I think how you respond to Jovita needs to be based on your own feelings and desires. Your actions are all you have control over, not how she feels about you, about Americans, or any other issue. There's no denying the reality of the financial chasm between your life and hers. There's also little doubt she's trying to make the most from her employment with you. In her shoes I would undoubtedly have the same temptation. If you can give her the pay ungrudgingly, respectfully of her, do it. You can look at it as an opportunity to help a fellow human being. If giving her what she has asked for will create resentment in you, then don't do it. Maybe you'd feel better gifting her with a "bonus" some day when she hasn't asked for anything. I hope you come to a decision you're happy with, and I hope you'll let us know what you decide. I love your honesty on the blog; really related to your post on boredom but it'd be too long to try to write a response. Becky

  • Kathy

    I like the half-pay for the day off. We have a cleaning lady, who comes every other week, and has been with us for 7 years. We give her a 15% tip every time she comes, because she keeps us (me) sane. We also give her a Christmas bonus, and when we can afford it, an Easter bonus as well.

    Part of it feels good to give, but only when we decide to give. If someone asks for a handout, we feel uncomfortable giving, and then we feel guilty if we don't give.

    Lists all the positives she does – travels to your rural house to clean, does a good job, is reliable. In the US, these are all things that would merit the asking for a bonus/raise. Why should anyone in any country be any different?

    You know that she could use the money, you know that she might not have a job in a few weeks when you return to the US, and this might not be about US versus Guatemala. This might just be about a good worker who is in need & is asking her employer for help.

  • Mama Pea

    Seems to me like Jovita IS asking for money again. "Would you please give me money even though I'm not going to work for it?" If the two of you had a mutually respectful relationship, I don't believe she would ASK to be paid. Having said that, I know you're dealing with a different culture . . . which has got to be hard, hard, hard. I certainly may be in the minority (and perhaps not kind or generous) but it does seem that so much of the world perceives any and all Americans as rolling in money. Should we perpetuate that myth?

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