A Guide To Hiring Child Care In A Country Where It’s Broken
Parents, caregivers, and organizers share ways to ethically navigate an industry where exploitation abounds.
In January 2020, a Menlo Park mother’s nearly 2,000-word ad seeking a “household manager/cook/nanny” went viral. Among the laundry list of requirements were that the nanny would “ski on an intermediate level,” “research the latest developments in food science,” have “experience driving in other countries,” “do calisthenics,” and “correctly quantify how much fish to purchase for five people.” “Is this the most demanding ad for a nanny ever?” the Guardian asked. Jezebel suggested that the mother behind the ad seemed to be seeking a “chef, accountant, travel agent, math teacher, and personal trainer, like the iPhone of people.”
There are many differences between the writer of that ad and the average parent seeking child care arrangements. (Most parents don’t have a “pool cottage” for their nanny to live in, for one.) But one difference that struck me when I read it was the ad writer's clarity about her role: she was an employer. An exacting (and perhaps terrifying) manager of her “household staff.”
For most parents, it goes more like this: A child shows up in your house. If you ever want to go anywhere (like to your job) again, you need child care. All the options are hideously expensive and/or don’t provide the needed time coverage. And then... you figure out the least-bad option, usually without thinking much about the structural forces that have created this impossible situation.
“Parents can’t pay more, and early childhood educators can’t earn less.”
When we first had our daughter, I spent a lot of time staring at calendars and our bank account balance, trying to make the numbers work. It was a math problem without a good solution. The Department of Health and Human Services considers a family to have “affordable child care” if their child care costs don’t exceed 7% of their income. There is no state in the country in which a family making their state’s median income can find affordable full-time day care by this metric for a child under 4 years old. (Infant care — that is, care for children between the ages of 6 weeks to 1 year — is even more expensive.) Of course, for families with more than one child, the costs are even more extreme. One mother I spoke to referred to the day care costs for her two young children as “the house we’ll never live in.” Yet one of the most maddening things about this country’s child care crisis is that the high costs for families have not corresponded to high wages for caretakers. Child care workers, particularly at day care centers, are notoriously underpaid. The Economic Policy Institute found that child care providers are twice as likely as other workers to live below the poverty line, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the median yearly pay for child care workers is $27,490 per year.
What can individual families do to make sure they’re acting legally and morally when making child care choices? Second, what collective solutions should we be pushing for that will change the current system and create a child care infrastructure that will serve both workers, families, and children?
Because of our country’s lack of child care infrastructure, most parents have very little “choice” when choosing a child care center. Even before the pandemic caused at least 16,000 child care centers across the country to close, day care for families was hard to come by. Now, competition for day care spots has become absurd. In Seattle, for instance, families may get on waiting lists for a day care before they’re even pregnant; some day cares include an option for “trying to conceive” on their registration form that asks for their child’s name, age, and birthdate.
Meanwhile, for the day care workers themselves, it is underpaid work with little security. Rhian Evans Allvin, the CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, succinctly described our country’s problem with day care: “Parents can’t pay more, and early childhood educators can’t earn less.”
Tracy and Matt, whose son is now 7, had a typical experience for expectant parents in the U.S.: “Shortly after I got pregnant,” Tracy says, “I made my child care spreadsheet — I had things in columns: the cost, the distance from our house.” They planned to use the spreadsheet to compare their various day care options and figure out which one made the most sense. But when they went to a child care fair when she was still pregnant, they were told by one representative that if she wanted a spot, they “should have already been on the waitlist a month ago.” They quickly discarded the detailed spreadsheet and turned their attention to simply finding a program with space.
As it happened, the only reason they were able to secure a day care spot at all when their son was an infant was through fortunate happenstance; a new day care center was opening at just the right time that gave priority spots to employees at Matt’s company. (Tracy works as a university administrator, and Matt works in biotech.) They jumped at the spot in what I’ll call Day Care A. The center was in the opposite direction from both of their workplaces, which led to complicated family logistics since they’d made the choice, for both environmental and financial reasons, to have one car rather than two.
But when their son was 2 years old, they finally got off the waiting list at a day care that was within walking distance of Tracy’s work. At the time that they went to tour their new option, Tracy had recently worked on putting together programming for her university that focused on labor rights and had attended a speech by Ai-jen Poo, the head of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, that had gotten her thinking about the wages of child care workers. So, when she toured Day Care B, she asked the director how much the workers there made. The answer was the federal minimum wage — $7.25 an hour. She asked about benefits and got a response to this effect: “We don’t give benefits, but we have lots of love — we just love what we do.”
Solutions that will address the roots of these problems are bigger than any one family and any one caretaker.
Tracy then wrote an email to the director of Day Care A, where their son was already enrolled, asking the same questions. The head of the school wrote her back a heartfelt response, which she got permission to share with me. The response began, “As a teacher with more than 20 years in this field, from the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU for being concerned with how centers treat their teachers.” The center director said in a text message on which I was included that she didn’t recall any other parent having asked that question, though she was quick to acknowledge that “the cost of child care is so high that many families aren’t able to care about things like that (at least in a way that they can do something about it).”
The wages and benefits at Day Care A were, as Tracy said, “not great, but significantly better.” Despite the appeal of Day Care B’s location and cheaper cost, they decided to stay with Day Care A, even though Day Care B would have cost their family about $300 less a month. A combination of their family’s economic privilege (which both Tracy and Matt were quick to acknowledge) and their other decisions (including forgoing a second car) had put them in a position to make that choice.
While not every family could, or would, make the same choice as Matt and Tracy, all parents can ask about the pay and benefits for staff when they’re touring a child care center, and use that information when deciding what waitlists to get onto (usually, the only real “decision” that most parents ever get). Most child care operators are trying to do right by both their employees and the families they serve on very tight margins. But if parents with options were consistently choosing centers that better compensated their employees, that could shift operators’ incentives to provide better compensation.
Here are some questions to ask a day care provider:
- What is the hourly wage for starting workers? Do they receive cost-of-living raises?
- What benefits are offered?
- Are workers offered paid vacation time?
- Are workers offered opportunities for professional development?
- What is worker turnover like?
Domestic help is a poorly regulated industry; one prominent activist has called the labor force “invisible” and the industry “the Wild West.” When figuring out how to structure employment agreements, parents are often simply relying on word-of-mouth and prevailing community norms when it comes to figuring out a fair hourly wage, paid time off, and other benefits.
In 1933, Zipporah Elizabeth Moman, a Black educator and activist from Mississippi, wrote a pointed letter to President Roosevelt, noting that the average wages of the domestic workers who raised children and cleaned homes in her area was “$3.50 a week” (less than $100 a week in today’s money). She inquired, “Does this mean a living wage? If not, what protection do they have?” Enclosed with the letter was a proposed “Code of Fair Competition for Personal and Domestic Workers” with astonishingly modest demands: a workweek not to exceed 56 hours, one week of paid vacation per year, and a minimum wage of $14.40 per week (averaging out to 25 cents an hour — less than $5 in today’s money).
Moman was neither the first nor the last activist seeking to get domestic workers the same protections as other members of the workforce. But throughout the New Deal era, and thereafter, domestic workers were repeatedly left out of the laws that provided legal protections to other categories of workers. The racist motivation behind their exclusion was impossible to miss. Nannies and cleaners (who were primarily Black women) and farm laborers (who were primarily Black and Latino men) were two groups explicitly not covered by various pieces of federal legislation, including the Social Security Act, that granted important rights to other workers. While most states still have very few laws about domestic work, there are (finally) some laws that protect this workforce. In certain states, there are legal obligations that come with employing a nanny. New York State passed the first Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in 2010; Hawaii and California passed their own laws in 2013. Other states and cities have followed suit, though most jurisdictions still have no such law.
Gabriela Siegel, an attorney with the nonprofit advocacy organization Make the Road New York, specializes in representing domestic workers in legal disputes and has seen dozens of cases where things have gone very, very wrong between a nanny and an employer. She talked about the most common ways that families, inadvertently or purposefully, break the law when employing someone in their home.
Families who may unthinkingly say that they want a nanny who will be a “part of their family” are often wading into dicey territory.
Under federal law, nannies are nonexempt employees, which means that an employer is required to pay them by the hour. Siegel frequently sees employers who, instead of paying by the hour, pay their nannies a fixed weekly rate. Using that method can quickly lead to wage theft; Siegel explains that when you have a fixed rate, “it’s not clear what the base hourly rate is.” Knowing the “base rate” is important because any work over 40 hours should be paid at a rate of time and a half. If the base rate of pay is $18 per hour, for instance, that would mean that the 41st hour worked that week, and any additional hours beyond that, should be compensated at a rate of $27 per hour. Siegel also cautioned employers to be aware that nannies often count on being paid for the agreed-upon hours. It’s not a legal requirement to pay your nanny for their full workday if you happen to come home two hours early, but, as Siegel puts it, “don’t come home early, not pay them for that time, and think you’ve done them a favor.”
The other legal requirement that applies no matter what state you’re in is to pay “on the books.” If you pay a domestic employee more than $2,100 a year, you and the nanny are each obligated to pay 7.65% of their earned income toward Social Security and Medicare taxes. Some states have additional tax requirements. To avoid shorting their take-home pay, some employers may choose to pay the nanny’s portion of those taxes, or to at least pay a higher base wage. Care.com offers a free calculator that allows you to compare a nanny’s weekly gross pay to their net pay once these taxes have been taken out. A nanny making $20 per hour for a 40-hour workweek, for instance, would have a gross pay of $800 but net only about $650, depending on what additional deductions the state requires — meaning that the “real” rate would be closer to between $16 to $17 an hour if the employer isn’t covering both portions of the taxes.
The requirement to pay on the books often gets conflated or confused with a separate legal obligation: in 41 states, you’re required to give your nanny a pay stub that lays out the pay period, hourly rate (and any overtime wages), and the taxes taken out. The pandemic also highlighted the necessity of that requirement: nannies who had pay stubs were able to use those pay stubs to qualify for vaccination once vaccines became available to caregivers.
The legal requirements of employing a nanny in almost every state:
- Pay your nanny hourly, for all the hours they work.
- Pay at least minimum wage (which varies by state), and pay time and a half for any hours worked over 40 within a given seven-day period.
- Pay on the books.
- Provide a pay stub (in most states).
“Parents who said I was ‘like family’ were always asking too much of me.”
Siegel, the attorney who represents domestic workers, says that often, when her clients come to see her, they will begin by telling her a story that doesn’t involve a legal issue: “It’s stuff that’s not actually actionable or illegal — stuff like ‘she just spoke to me so disrespectfully and had no regard for me.’” Siegel typically finds that such disrespectful treatment will go hand in hand with things that are legally actionable: the nanny was underpaid or that their employers weren’t following other laws — but the low pay wasn’t what had led the nanny to seek legal advice. Even in cases where an employer has been underpaying their employee for years, she says, “wage theft is not something that brings people in the door. Unfortunately, that’s often baked into low-wage work.” Instead, boundaries are another repeated theme that I heard from nannies. Families who may unthinkingly say that they want a nanny who will be a “part of their family” are often wading into dicey territory.
One former nanny, who prefers to remain anonymous, says, “I am very distrustful of the ‘part of the family’ line. Parents who said I was ‘like family’ were always asking too much of me.” When asked why she thought it was such a common descriptor, she says that the phrase probably came from the intimacy of the work — nannying generally involves being in someone’s home for hours a day, and often seeing parts of their lives that they may keep hidden from the rest of the world. But she feels some frustration that parents would not recognize the power imbalance inherent in their different roles. Just because the parent in a family feels comfortable venting to a nanny about their frustrations with their child or their job doesn’t mean that the nanny feels the same level of comfort with the parent. Another nanny ruefully puts it this way: “Cinderella was part of the family.”
I heard the same story again and again: parents would find a temporary solution — some combination of reduced work hours, family care, nanny, and day care all stacked on top of each other like a house of cards — and then see it fall down again when a child care provider moved away, a family member got sick, or the pandemic upended everything. Child care workers would land with a family that paid them well and treated them fairly, but then that family’s needs would change, and they would end up negotiating all over again with their next family. Both families and child care providers described themselves to me as “lucky” when things were, however tenuously, working. But a system that requires someone to be “lucky” to have a safe place for their child to be while they work, or to receive fair wages for their work, is not a good one.
Solutions that will address the roots of these problems are bigger than any one family and any one caretaker. For over 20 years, activist and organizer Ai-jen Poo has been a leader in trying to change the way that the United States views care work. The co-founder of both the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which focuses primarily on housecleaners and nannies, and Caring Across Generations, which focuses on elder care, Poo has tried to shift our cultural conception of care so that we view it as a collective problem, not an individual one. “Caregiving,” she has said, “is not a problem the market can solve.” The NDWA’s website is a good starting place for any parent interested in the collective solutions to our country’s care problem. Poo has urged both caregivers and the people who employ them to view themselves as a voting bloc that needs to elect leaders on both a local and national level who prioritize these issues.
Working on collective solutions of any kind, particularly for our country’s complicated care problem, takes time and labor, but it doesn’t need to be drudgery. When Poo appeared on the podcast Forever 35 to talk about her self-care routines, she talked about yoga and Kiehl’s skin care products, but also included her advocacy work as a self-care practice, adding “winning is the best self-care.”
- Be dubious of workarounds. Any child care situation that promises low-cost, easy solutions to this problem is probably doing so on the backs of the most vulnerable people.
- In any child care situation, including family care, start with clear expectations, clear boundaries, and the premise that even if caring for children can be rewarding, child care is hard work.
- Always ask questions. Talk to other parents about how they are navigating their child care choices. Talk to your child care workers about what they want and need. The American culture of silence around money and child care issues allows these problems to stay hidden.
This is an excerpt from Sarah Jaffe’s new book, Wanting What’s Best: Parenting, Privilege, And Building A Just World.