Wednesday, March 13, 2013

In Which No Nannies Were Abused and Enslaved In My House

Oh, you funny anti-nanny opinion-havers on the internets, how you entertain me so!

You leave blog comments on otherwise thoughtful and nuanced blogs expressing your concern for all the poor helpless nannies who you just know are ALL being "abused" and "enslaved" in millions of American households. You have loads of research to prove it, too.

If our most recent nanny were still employed with us, and if I were foolish enough to believe you, I guess I'd have to fire her right now. But alas, she's already decided to move on to new opportunities: we were grateful she waited until our youngest entered preschool, and our foster kid returned to the birth parents. The truth is, we think the world of her and her family. We helped her find a new part-time job (that she admits she does not financially need because her husband's job has always covered their bills, and otherwise she'd be a SAHM with 3 kids in all-day school) and enroll in private advanced English conversations classes.  She speaks good enough English and even passed the citizenship test in English, but dreams of improving, for which we are paying her full tuition even though she no longer works for us.

Yes, obviously, our system is certainly rigged against the working poor and I'm with Barbara Ehrenreich to the extent I wonder how anyone can support a family on, say, $7 an hour. However, the appropriate target for your ire should not be household employers like me, or @Laura Vanderkam, or @scantee over here, or even the mega rich like Sheryl Sandberg, or several of my grad school friends who live in large cities, who so very very clearly do not at all engage in unfair labor practices or tax dodging. Rather you should perhaps focus your ire on employers like Wal-Mart, who screw over the working poor en masse, reducing their workers' hours to avoid paying benefits, causing them and their families to become public charges. Or better yet, get mad at states that have low minimum wage laws.
In the last several years, I've employed 2 part-time US citizen nannies (not at the same time, though I don't necessarily see anything at all wrong/overly luxurious about having 2 concurrent nannies where a family has, say, a special needs kid, and/or 3 or more kids and/or multiples, etc). I went about employing each nanny the legal way: paying Social Security and Medicare taxes (against the first nanny's own objections I might add), reimbursing their transportation costs, giving paid vacations plus unlimited sick/personal days, providing them excellent job references after they each left us on their own terms, and supporting them to find future employment before they stopped working for us; and also letting their preschool-aged daughter be cared for along with my own kids in our home, and helping to pay for their daughter's Quincenera, and so on. 
All of the nannies I interviewed were making well above minimum wage (which was just over $9/hr in my state): I was told that the going rate in the Big City where I used to live was $500 a week, with a guarantee of 40 to 45 hours whether you actually needed that many hours or not, which works out to $10 to $12 an hour. Big City seemed to be cheaper than a lot of other cities. In one large southern US city, the going rate was closer to $15. What's more, nearly every nanny I interviewed stated, flat out, that they didn't do housework apart from cleaning up whatever messes they themselves actually make while performing their duties, and the ones with kids needed certain afternoons off for kids' appointments, they'd be gone 3 weeks at Christmas, and suddenly needed two months off to help their youngest transition into Kindergarten... and I gladly said "yes" and worked around their schedules because when I finally found someone truly awesome, I wanted her to stay. Our most recent nanny has great negotiation skills, and I love that about her even when she totally out-negotiates me.
So, I ask: Is what I've just described really "abuse" and "slavery"? Is this honestly so bad? Nannies work in a safe, clean environment for an employer who has the best possible incentive for treating them well: they're taking care of the boss's precious kids. I don't believe that a job caring for young children is inherently demeaning. If I believed that, I never would have been a SAHM like I was, and my DH never would have been a SAHD like he was. 
Yes, $10 or even $15 an hour, no benefits, is probably the bare minimum necessary to survive. But it's not a sweatshop, either, and it is definitely not "abuse," and dear sweet lord in heaven it is certainly not "slavery." And really, how offensive and inaccurate of you to say so.
I guess the real question is: is there a way for a progressive family in the professional classes to hire a nanny and *allow the wife to work* without automatically joining the ranks of so-called "exploitive" employers? (Because let's be honest, we're not talking about *husbands* not being able to work because they don't have access to available and adequate childcare!) And what else besides paying Social Security and Medicare taxes, and state unemployment taxes, should household employers be doing for their nannies?
No really, do tell.


Anonymous said...

We hire college students at a dollar above the going rate for college students (thus ensuring we get our pick of excellent people). We have four of them this semester. I'm fairly sure they would be perplexed at the idea that we're exploiting them.

None of them are working this week even though we'd like them to because, dude, it is Spring Break. They have Spring Break things to do.

Yes, there are employers in the US who abuse illegal and even legal immigrants. (See: agriculture, manufacturing, etc.) Some of these abused folks are probably nannies. But hiring a nanny (especially one with a Social Security number whose benefits you pay) does not automatically lead to an abusive situation. As for the majority of cases-- if that is true, then the legal system really needs to step up! If you know of any cases of slavery, call the police.

Laura Vanderkam said...

Nice. Very nice. I, too, would like to see more enforcement. The prospect of nixed future government employment should not be the only stick getting parent-employers to follow the law.

Cloud said...

I'm equally perplexed by people who say that all day care jobs suck. There are teachers at our day care who have been there for over 10 years. These are smart, dedicated people. They are a mix of races. The employee who has been there the longest is a man who is just awesome with the difficult babies (like Pumpkin was). Surely if the job really sucked, these people would go elsewhere?

The teachers at our day care all have at least some relevant college classes, and several have college degrees in early education. They do amazing things with the kids, and the kids love them.

I agree that this is not highly paid work. I would be happy to pay more to make it more highly paid- but reality check: our day care center starts at over $1500/month for an infant. We currently pay about $1200/month for a 3.5 year old (decreased cost is due to increased child/teacher ratio). While we could pay more- and we never begrudge the rate increases- a lot of people cannot. Is it better to price even more families out of the day care market? Maybe. Maybe not. I don't know.

If we want child care workers to be paid better, we need to change our system. Have better minimum wage laws. Spend more of our public money on child care. Change how we spend the money we do spend so that families like mine do not get the tax credit- which is frankly so small in comparison to the actual cost of day care as to be in the noise of our overall finances, and take that money and give meaningful subsidies to families who actually need them.

I've come to think that this "you're exploiting the people you pay to help you" theme is just the liberal version of "a woman's place is in the home." Two sides of the patriarchy.

And, I have to add- most of the people I come across spouting this opinion have never, ever worked a minimum wage job. They have NO IDEA what work at the bottom of the pay scale is like. They never give thought to whether or not they are exploiting the person who bags their groceries, or sells them popcorn at the movie theater, or takes their order at McDonalds. Heck, they don't even worry about the people who wash their cars and take care of their lawns. Somehow, it is just the child care workers and the housecleaners who are being exploited. Well, I cleaned houses when I was in school, and I was a college nanny for a summer. I worked in a movie theater and an ice cream shop. Cleaning houses was easier than the movie theater job and didn't make me smell as bad. (I still don't really care for popcorn....) And the nanny job was the best of the lot.

Got It, Ma! said...

Great post. I think the point that stands out for me the most is the fact that our society considers the work of caring for young children to be inherently demeaning. It certainly informs this misperception that all nannies are mistreated, not to mention how uncomfortable some people seem to be with the idea of a stay home dad, and the general lack of respect stay home moms experience. Of course working mothers take far more than their fair share of grief, too, but it's of a slightly different, although no less palatable flavor.

Good lord! I feel a "Why can't we all just get along?!?" moment coming on. Time for a beer, I think.

hush said...

@nicoleandmaggie - Agreed, yes there certainly are abusive employers, and unskilled laborers are most at risk. But wow, the internet narratives of imagined nanny abusers greatly overestimate their number, as if we're living in a "The Help"-esque dystopia and every mother helped by a nanny is that wretched Hilly character. Somebody call 911!

@Laura Vanderkam - Amen to more enforcement, and also to some immigration reform: nanny visas would be a wonderful change.

@Cloud - "I'm equally perplexed by people who say that all day care jobs suck." Totally. Anyone of means who feels their child's daycaretakers are so woefully underpaid has the ability to remedy that by tipping them extra for a job well done. A married couple could gift each daycare worker up to $28k this year and still not owe any gift taxes. But no, bitching about it on the internets is a lot cheaper.

"I've come to think that this "you're exploiting the people you pay to help you" theme is just the liberal version of "a woman's place is in the home." Two sides of the patriarchy." You nailed it.

@Got It, Ma! - I'll raise a Stella Artois to that!

oilandgarlic said...

There are many more workers who are much more exploited from retail workers to farming to factories. I remember reading that Amazon warehouse had horrible conditions (not sure if that has changed). A nanny is often not well-protected but most people I know do treat their nannies well. You have to be selective about who you hire and you want them to be happy because they're taking care of your babies/kids. We did ask our nanny to do some light housecleaning but only what she felt was reasonable and we asked before hiring if she was willing. We paid $15/hour and accommodated her schedule as much as possible, since she also worked part-time for another household.

Truthfully we couldn't afford to pay more nor pay for full-time. And if we had to, it would be impossible for both of us to work at all.

At any rate, I have also paid less than $15/hour depending on the person's experience. We always discussed things with her in a polite, adult manner.

Cloud said...

No, I wasn't thinking of any particular comment- it is just something I've come across a lot. I read Laura's post early, before the comments took off, and I haven't gone back to read them all, mostly because I need to not get myself all worked up about this topic!

I think most people who worry about the exploitation of domestic workers are good people with their hearts in the right place. They just haven't thought about their own internalized assumptions and prejudices. So they don't realize how inconsistent it is to worry we're exploiting nannies and not gardeners. And even if they do, it is sooo much easier to demonize "those people" who employ them than to think about how we should change our laws to make sure no one is exploited. Getting the laws right would be HARD. We should try, but it would be hard. It is easier to pretend that this is a problem the private market could fix if people like me would just be... I don't know. Nicer? Less ambitious? Interested in cleaning our own toilets? Something.

Personally, I use a cleaning service and a day care instead if hiring directly partly because I don't want to have to figure out the taxes and deal with HR-type problems. I did not ask to see the wage scale at the services I chose, although I did try to pick places with low staff turnover as a proxy measure for how the staff were treated. No one expects me to interrogate the owners of the car wash we use about how much they pay those workers, or the managers of the restaurants we eat at, or the stores we shop at. If there is some level of wage below which we think work is necessarily exploitative, then we should make that the minimum wage. Expecting people to figure out wage scales at every company whose services they use is just silly.

scantee said...

I think the special attention paid to nanny exploitation is due to the issue being mixed up in gender politics and issues with women in the workforce more generally. Whenever I read about child care (whether at a center, a family child care, or with a nanny) the framing is always that the child care is needed so that specifically the mother can work. With that framing, it's easily spun into "high-falutin' working gals taking advantage of their less well off sisters when what they SHOULD be doing is staying at home taking care of their own kids instead of letting a stranger raise them. The poor things."