Coronavirus (Covid-19) and childcare: Nannying during the pandemic

Filed Under: Costs

As the pandemic continues into the school year, one cohort of American workers is feeling a unique squeeze. Caught in an unregulated industry of employment by families who need more help, private nannies and other child care providers have gone through a rollercoaster of changes this year. We spoke to experts about what the past six months have been like for nannies and how to navigate nannying during this crisis. 

WHAT IS THE NANNY INDUSTRY LIKE?

“The nanny industry is just really complicated because it’s so unregulated,” Elizabeth Malson, the president and founder of the US Nanny Institute, which provides private training and certifications for nannies, said  in an interview. “It’s the wild, wild West.”

Nannying is similar to many often-cash-only domestic jobs like house cleaners or gardeners. Like these household workers, most nannies – Malson’s organization estimates around 90% – are paid under the table in cash by their employers, who do not file tax documents. But the Department of Labor classifies nannies in a larger group of child care providers, which includes day care centers, who operate their own businesses or are employed by day care businesses and are subject to more regulations and taxes. Unlike these providers, who must pass various state regulations and tests to operate, nannies are employed privately by families – and parents vet  their hires independent of state or other government regulation. 

Because of the loose definition and regulations, it’s next to impossible to get a sense of how large the nanny industry is. Malson says  her organization estimates that there are around 4 million people who have been or are nannies in the United States, which includes people nannying part-time or for a few years to cover a gap between employment. But what Malson calls the “professional nanny community” – those who congregate online in nanny groups, or have made being a nanny their professional career – her organization estimates numbers around 50,000.

As a result of the lack of regulations, nannying is a job almost totally dependent on interpersonal relationships: the nannies and the parents who negotiate her responsibilities and pay; the families who pass recommendations for nannies between them; and the nannies who congregate online in  Facebook groups and other online forums. 

And many nannies, Malson said, are extremely shy of speaking to government leaders and the press – especially  nannies for whom English is a second language. “A lot of them have been misrepresented by the media” in past interviews, she said. (We’ve included public posts from a popular nanny forum on Reddit in this post.)

CORONAVIRUS’S IMMEDIATE IMPACT

Lora Brawley, a 30-year nanny industry veteran, runs a resource center called Nanny Care Hub for nannies and parents as well as a podcast and Facebook page. Brawley said in an interview  that during the first months of the pandemic, many families cut off all other service workers due to financial and/or safety concerns, often retaining only  the nanny. This meant some families shifted many  household responsibilities, like housekeeping, dog-walking and cooking, on to the nanny – and sometimes without negotiating extra pay. 

“One of the biggest challenges [was nannies were] doing a whole lot more work,” Brawley said. “But of course, nobody wanted to ask for more money, it was a pandemic.”

Malson said she also saw some nannies given the opportunity to move in permanently with  families – raking up hours and often leaving their own families behind in the process. And for those who lost their jobs, the informal nature of their work meant that it was often difficult or impossible to get help from the government.

“A lot of nannies are paid under the table and were not eligible for any financial support,” Malson said. “The first three or four months, it was a lot of nannies laid off unexpectedly, no income, no resources or support.” 

Brawley said: “What we learned in the spring was nannies are not financially ready to take that kind of a hit. It’s a working group, and they live, most of them, paycheck to paycheck.”

Even for nannies who kept their positions, Brawley said, there can be surprising difficulties. One of the more challenging aspects for some nannies can be dealing with moms and dads who are normally out of the house at home – especially in cities where apartment space is at a premium.

“[Nannies] may love their employers and they may get along, but there’s a thing of too many cooks in the kitchen,” she said.

During the first months of the pandemic, Reddit’s r/nanny forum ran a daily coronavirus post where nannies and parents could chat. In a post dated March 10 – just when the pandemic was starting to escalate in the United States – the full range of nanny experiences was starting to go on display.

“Lord pray for me fellow nannies,” one user posted. “They’re discussing closing schools for a MONTH, meaning my two oldest [children] will be home, AND the dads work is discussing working from home. I will lose my damn mind. I refuse to work for WFH parents because they’re so damn annoying.”

Another user wrote about an  employer’s decision to keep a  child home from school and stop childcare: “Which means I’ll be out of a job for a week? Two? Three? I don’t know how long this will last and I feel like I might ask them for some pay for the next couple weeks? I don’t think I can bring myself to do it tho. I’m so worried about my finances :(“

WITH  FALL,  PODS AND VIRTUAL SCHOOL

Both our experts said they noticed a shift in hiring trends and families’ needs throughout the summer as people settled into the pandemic for the long haul – and looked towards the school year. The need for continued childcare in the home coupled with the gap in many kids’ learning experiences are leading parents to look for someone who can fill both roles. 

“Parents are looking for private educators to help them with the actual education piece of it, because [kids] may not be getting everything from school, but they’re also still looking for nannies because they need actual hands-on childcare,” Brawley said. 

The issue, experts say, is that educators and nannies are two very different jobs – which many parents may not understand.

“Some [nannies] were taking on a tremendous amount of responsibility, a lot more work, especially because they may have had a child who has special needs or a child who just doesn’t do well with Zoom,” Brawley said. “And instead of spending 30 minutes a day on homework, they’re spending four hours a day trying to help that child.”

Malson said that this gap in expectations could lead to conflict a few months into the school year. “I think in the next three months, it’s all going to clash because the nannies aren’t trained, the parents have different expectations, and this is new for everyone,” she said.

Before the pandemic, it was not uncommon for two or three families to split a nanny’s time in a practice called nanny shares. Now, Brawley said, as more families see a need for both supervision and remote learning help on a budget, families are relying on this model – with a slightly different name. 

“A family may say, we’re aware they’re technically nanny shares, but they’re calling them pods,” she said. Brawley said she has fielded skyrocketing inquiries about pods from both parents and nannies, and she hosted a podcast devoted to pods, including guidance on tax structure and qualifications for pod instructors, last month.

But increased responsibilities for nannies with multiple children of different ages in pods may mean an even larger share of the work.

“The other big stumbling block [with online learning] is multiple ages in the home,” Brawley said. “They may have, you know, a sixth-grader and a toddler. So how do you balance that out?” And some wealthy families are hiring trained educators to teach in their pods at a cost of as much as $70,000 a year — meaning that the need for, and the budget for, a nanny is less. 

Posts to r/nanny show that many caregivers are feeling the strain. In a September 15 post titled “Quitting and I feel so guilty,” one nanny writes about the difficulty of homeschooling their charges. 

“If COVID wasn’t happening and the kids were in school and this was a typical nannying position I probably wouldn’t be quitting, but I just can’t homeschool a 6 year old and an 8 year old simultaneously for the entire year, especially when they barely listen or respect me in the first place,” the nanny wrote.

HOW TO NAVIGATE NANNYING DURING CORONAVIRUS

Both experts say that extensive communication between nannies and the families who hire them is more needed than ever entering the second half-year of the pandemic.

“If there’s one thing our industry needs to learn, it’s how to have robust conversations up front,” Malson said. “Trying to provide tools and resources for difficult conversations, setting expectations, and talking through what you really need upfront is really important.”

Brawley said a sample nannying contract she produced for her clients in the spring that included Covid precautions has been downloaded from her website more than 2,000 times; she has since updated the contract with an extensive list of recommended topics to include in any nannying agreement, including testing precautions, guidelines for new or unexpected stay-at-home orders, and how to navigate Covid-related educational responsibilities.

“The biggest thing is you have to make sure that you as a family are on the same level as far as safety precautions and protocols,” Brawley said.