Editor’s note: Since this story was first published, Judge Vincent L. Briccetti filed a memorandum endorsement canceling the Nov. 15 hearing and ordering the case closed.
Sherile Pahagas said she remembers exactly where she was five years ago when she got the news she had been chosen for a job as a live-in housekeeper and nanny with a diplomat’s family in New York.
“I was so excited, so overwhelmed,” Pahagas said of the opportunity to provide a decent wage to support her three children in the Philippines and give her the chance to live in America.
“I felt like I am so lucky because when I apply for the visa, it got approved immediately. And after one week, I flew to the United States.”
After working for four years as a domestic worker in Hong Kong, Pahagas landed at John F. Kennedy airport Nov. 3, 2012, she said. The city was still reeling from Hurricane Sandy, but she couldn’t contain her excitement as she took a taxi to the hotel her employers, Pit and Mareike Koehler, had arranged for her.
A few days later, she said the couple took her back to their home in West Harrison, New York, to start work.
“I felt like I am still dreaming when I step foot here,” Pahagas, 33, told ABC News. “I cannot believe it. I am imagining the work, and I am excited because the promise they gave me is like $9.86, with overtime pay.”
But the reality of working as a domestic employee for the family was very different, Pahagas said. She and another employee of the family who was hired after she quit were forced to work roughly 90 to 100 hours a week, earning about $4 per hour with no overtime or overtime compensation, according to a federal complaint Pahagas and Edith Mendoza filed June 28 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Pahagas worked for the family from November 2012 to October 2014, while Mendoza worked for them from January 2015 to June 2016, according to the complaint.
Their responsibilities included caring for four young children, cooking meals, cleaning the family’s six-bedroom, six-bathroom home, and shoveling snow, according to the complaint.
During the terms of their employment, Pahagas and Mendoza lived in the family’s home in a town about 20 miles northeast of Manhattan.
“I could not do anything, and I was scared to lose my visa,” Pahagas said.
Mendoza, 51, said she quit after a year and a half because the heavy workload started to affect her health. Her employers refused to let her go see a doctor, according to the complaint.
“I felt not valued. Because when I got sick, they didn’t care about my situation,” Mendoza, also a Philippines native, said. “They never cared about it, they never let me rest.”
The Koehlers’ attorney did not respond to ABC News’ multiple requests for comment.
The women’s attorney, Reena Arora, called the conditions under which they worked “grueling.”
“You’re asking someone in your household to be working between 90 and 100 hours per week -- and they’re completely isolated, they’re in a mansion in Westchester, they don’t have access to public transportation, they have only one day off a week, when their health is in jeopardy and they’re penalized for trying to seek medical attention, they’re not given any days off, they’re being paid woefully under what the promised rates were,” Arora, an attorney with the nonprofit Urban Justice Center in New York, told ABC News.
According to a statement of damages Arora filed with the court Oct. 12, Pahagas and Mendoza are seeking $368,402.94 in damages, including the wages they say they are owed, plus interest and attorney’s fees.
In October, the Koehlers’ attorney filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the couple is immune under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. On Nov. 9, Mendoza and Pahagas’ attorneys filed a letter standing by their clients' assertions but acknowledging that under the law, the couple is immune from civil action, withdrawing their motion for default judgment and saying they had decided not to oppose the Koehlers' motion for dismissal.
A hearing is set for Nov. 15 on the Koehlers' motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. Tito Sinha, an attorney with the Urban Justice Center working on the women’s case with Arora, declined to comment on their case until after the hearing.
The German Mission to the United Nations declined to comment in detail out of respect for the Koehlers’ privacy, telling ABC News it had forwarded “all information about this legal employment to the appropriate U.S. authority.”
But Arora said Mendoza and Pahagas are far from alone and that labor exploitation is a “huge problem” in the diplomatic community.
“This is a rampant practice, in my opinion,” Arora said, adding she has investigated two other such cases so far in the past eight months at the Urban Justice Center. “This is a problem in D.C., which houses most of the embassies, and in New York, which houses the United Nations. We see a lot of these cases come through.”
A report titled “Diplomatic Immunity and the Abuse of Domestic Workers: Criminal and Civil Remedies in the United States,” published in 2016 in the Duke Journal of Comparative and International Law, found that “since 2003, domestic workers have filed only 28 civil cases against diplomats and other international officials in U.S. federal courts.”
The report’s authors, Martina Vandenberg and Sarah Bessell, wrote that civil litigation like that brought by Mendoza and Pahagas has become a “more promising proposition” for domestic workers alleging exploitive work conditions.
Arora said that is what Mendoza and Pahagas are hoping to accomplish.
“We’re really trying to hold these folks accountable for their actions and to explain to all diplomats that once they’re in this country, regardless of the technicalities of immunity, they should be respecting the contracts they make and the labor laws,” she said.
Pahagas lived and worked for the Koehlers from the beginning of November 2012 until Oct. 25, 2014, according to the complaint.
Her workday typically began around 6 a.m. and ended around 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, and, in the beginning, she said, stretched from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. on Saturdays. She said she prepared all the family’s meals and snacks, helped the children dress, brush their teeth and catch the school bus and drove Pit Koehler to the train station.
She was responsible for daily deep cleaning of the house and garage, including vacuuming, laundry, dusting, ironing and grocery shopping, while also caring for the couple’s infant son. In the winter, she also shoveled the snow, the most taxing task, she said.
“I was the one who raised the baby for two years,” Pahagas said. "The kids felt love for me.”
Before starting work with the Koehlers, Pahagas said she and the couple signed a contract. But she worked far more than the 35 hours and earned far less than the $9.86 per hour (plus overtime) she had been promised in the contract, the complaint alleges. Instead, she was allegedly paid around $345 per week for between 92 and 102 hours of work, less than $4 an hour.
Pahagas first spoke to Pit Koehler about her wages in August of 2013, after she had been working in the house for more than six months, the complaint states.
“That morning, a Saturday, he was transferring my salary into my account,” Pahagas said. “I said, ‘You said that you were supposed to pay me more than that because I work too much time, like 17 hours a day.’ But he said, ‘Oh, Sherile, we cannot afford more than your salary.’”
She said she struggled with what to do. Her mother was counting on her to send $200 per week back to help care for her three children, all of whom were under the age of 10. She didn’t want to let her down. On Sundays, her one full day off, she called her mother and her children and tried to pretend everything was OK.
“I felt devastated,” she said. “I felt ashamed because they thought I had a better job here.”
She said she kept the reality from her friends back home, too.
In social media posts, Pahagas said, “I pretended like I am happy and have a good life here.”
She approached the Koehlers about her schedule in October 2013 and her hours were changed to total about 92 hours per week, according to the complaint.
A year later, she approached Mareike Koehler about how her long hours were affecting her health. But it didn’t make things better, she said.
“I feel like there was a pressure in the house since I complained to them,” Pahagas said. “They didn’t talk to me, sometimes she didn’t talk to me for the whole day. I felt so much pressure. I was the one who was ashamed in the house because I was just a maid.”
In October 2014, Pahagas found out she was pregnant. She told the Koehlers she could not continue to work long hours, she said.
“They were upset. They didn’t expect me to quit the job. They expected me to extend it when the contract was almost done,” Pahagas said. “I am thinking the work is too heavy for me. I was scared because I was experiencing back pain and winter was coming. I was scared I would need to shovel the snow again.”
Pahagas said she had borrowed money from the Koehlers for a ticket home and to help pay for her father’s funeral expenses. After she paid off the loan at a rate of $100 a week, she said, she quit.
She now lives in Queens with her 2-year-old son, and does domestic work in Manhattan. She assumed she would never see the money she was owed, Pahagas said. That was until she met Edith Mendoza, who began working for the Koehlers about three months after Pahagas quit.
Halfway around the world, Edith Mendoza had received the call she had been waiting for: She would be leaving her job as a domestic worker in Qatar to come to the United States. She would arrive in New York City just before her 49th birthday. Her salary would help her put her two children home in the Philippines through college.
“I dreamed at that time that I would give my family a better life,” Mendoza said. “When I stepped off the airplane, I kept looking outside and thinking, ‘Wow, this is America.’ It was overwhelming, seeing all the lights from the airplane.”
Her written contract said she would make $10.02 an hour for a 35-hour work week, and would earn time and a half for any hours worked over the 40-hour limit, according to the complaint. She began working shortly after arriving in the United States on Jan. 12, 2015.
But soon, Mendoza said, she experienced conditions much like the ones Pahagas has alleged. She worked from 6:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. Mondays to Thursday, and longer on Fridays, she said. Mendoza also worked 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays, making for an over 90-hour work week, according to the complaint, for which she was paid $350.70 per week.
She struggled to finish all the chores she was assigned, according to the complaint, and was not permitted to take breaks.
“The more work they gave me to do, the more nervous I became, because I needed to finish it all before the kids came home from school,” Mendoza said. “It was very, very stressful actually.”
But things worsened in early December 2015, when she asked for a day off to see a doctor, according to the complaint. Her menstruation had become heavier and she had been bleeding for three months, she said.
But the Koehlers told her she needed to wait until the family left for vacation to go to the doctor, according to the complaint.
Mendoza was finally able to see a doctor in February 2016, she said. By then, she was so sick she took six days off to recuperate, according to the complaint, and the Koehlers were upset.
“The doctor requested me to rest, so I sent a message back to my boss and all the copies of the doctor’s statements,” Mendoza said. “I was staying with my church friends. [Mareike Koehler] sent back a message saying that it was unreasonable, that it was unacceptable.”
Mendoza visited the doctor twice more in May 2016, according to the complaint, and Pit Koehler threatened to fire her if she missed work again. In June of that year, she went to the doctor anyway and was fired, according to the complaint.
She said she hasn’t had regular work in the year since she left the Koehlers, and struggles to pay the rent for the apartment she shares with a roommate in Queens.
“It’s hard for me now to find a good job because I don’t have a reference,” Mendoza said. “They spoiled my future. Every time I get a job, they ask me to give references. How could I get references from my former employer since I don’t have that kind of good ending?”
Mendoza said she met organizers from the Damayan Migrant Workers’ Association after being referred there by members of her church.
“I got to the point I was devastated, powerless, isolated, and not being treated like a human. I was very sad and was like, ‘Why did they do this to me?’” Mendoza said.
But after meeting with organizers at Damayan, Mendoza said she learned about her rights and met Pahagas, who she said had experienced the same things. Mendoza said she also read the story of Lola Pulido, a Filipina maid who worked without pay and died without ever seeing justice, in The Atlantic. She said she was determined not to let that be how her story ended.
Organizing live-in domestic workers often presents a challenge because many are isolated geographically, Arora, the women’s Urban Justice Center lawyer, said.
“They are absolutely an invisible workforce, and their isolation contributes to the problem that people don’t see them and they’re unable to assert their rights,” Arora said.
Like Mendoza and Pahagas, many domestic workers in Westchester County, “are living with their employers and there’s no space in which to interact or have any connections with organizers or groups on the ground,” she added.
But through the lawsuit, Mendoza said she is determined to hold her employers accountable.
“I came here without nothing. I came here with a great promise, they lured me here with promises, but they were lies,” Mendoza said. “I thought, if I don’t do anything about this, they will do it again and again to another domestic worker.”
“I feel bad because I am ruining a family’s reputation,” she said. “But I revealed what they are.”
On Aug. 7, domestic workers and activists joined Pahgas and Mendoza in a demonstration outside the German consulate. Attorney Arora said it’s also about sending a message more broadly that domestic workers are not afraid to report exploitive work conditions.
“I think in the political climate that we are in under the Trump administration, we have been told that immigrant workers are the enemy, and that has further compounded and emboldened employers to be more exploitative and to instill a sense of fear about workers’ coming forward to assert their rights,” Arora said.
“For Edith and Sherile to speak up against such a powerful person and a former employer working for the United Nations,” she added, “it’s an inspiration for other domestic workers who are dealing with these conditions day in and day out.”