Am I Exploiting My Nanny?

How To Liberate Yourself From the Diaper Genie
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Feb. 18 2004 7:38 AM

Am I Exploiting My Nanny?

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Dear Sara and Barbara:

Sara has pinpointed one of the central questions my essay provokes: Is hiring a nanny—even if one is scrupulous in one's employment practices—inherently exploitive? Before we address this topic, I think we should acknowledge that a lot of nannies, perhaps the majority, are treated poorly. Sara, you say "nannies work in a safe, clean environment, with an employer who has the best possible incentive for treating them well." I'm sure that's true for your nanny and mine, and for our friends' nannies—because we wouldn't be friends with people who mistreat their help. That's not nice. This is one of the many ways that nanny employment practices resemble work arrangements from an earlier time: The worker is not protected by the laws and regulations that govern her industry, but only by her employer's niceness and by the market.

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Indeed, many nannies are criminally mistreated. Stories of the sexual and physical abuse of domestic workers (particularly of illegal immigrants who are afraid to go to the authorities) are not uncommon. Further—and here we must wade into deeply un-PC territory, but why not?—it is well-known that many Third-World-born nannies dislike working for certain ethnic groups, whom they consider cheap. Certainly the major American port cities attract not only poor immigrant workers but also wealthier immigrants, many of whom hire nannies and hew to practices regarding the treatment of domestic workers that Americans would find shocking.

Now then, enough about these coarse and unscrupulous characters! We were talking about well-bred, well-educated, well-married women like us! How should we be treating our nannies, so that we may be liberated from the 24/7 of the Diaper Genie, yet still sleep a sound and blameless sleep? For starters, everyone employing a nanny must pay her Social Security taxes. In the first place, it's the law. In the second place, she probably doesn't have a great 401(k), and she's probably not expecting to get a nice little nest egg when her parents die. (I'm thinking of landscaping the backyard with mine.) She's going to need that Social Security once she's old. If she won't agree to pay her half of the Social Security taxes, then pay your half and hers. Come on, ladies: Don't be cheap. It's so disappointing. (Women tend to be cheaper than men. It's not our fault: We had a lot of years when we didn't have much economic power, so we had to be frugal. But we have power now; if you're rich enough to hire a nanny, you're rich enough to pay the freight.)

How does one go about paying these taxes? It's easier than it used to be but still hard to do it without professional help. I would recommend using one of the excellent and reputable nanny tax services such as Breedlove. They can file all of the necessary paperwork for you and your nanny at a reasonable price and will also let you know about the many advantages to hiring a nanny legally.

To any domestic workers reading this exchange: You have rights! More than you may know about. I urge you to go to the Web site of Domestic Workers United , where you will find an excellent employment contract that you can print out and bring with you to job interviews. Also check out the Web site for the Domestic Workers Association, which is part of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Both organizations can tell you how to report abuse and—this could change everything—how to organize.

Nannies, remember: You have leverage. Your employer's children love you—that's your power. If she's a working mother and if you live in a city with a big need for nannies, she needs you more than you need her. Remember that when you negotiate. If you must keep the job, but the woman won't pay your Social Security taxes, keep scrupulous records of your hours and wages, and when the job ends, report her. She will have to pay back taxes and also penalties. The two organizations listed above can help you do this, but you must keep records. You may also be eligible for a lump sum repayment of unpaid overtime. Any hour you work over 40 a week is considered overtime, and by law it must be paid at time and a half. It is never too late to start keeping records. Begin this Friday with this week's paycheck—and tell all your friends with nanny jobs to do the same.

I ran out of room—and I was just getting to professional class moms! Well—tomorrow then.

Caitlin

Caitlin Flanagan has just accepted a job as a staff writer at The New Yorker; she is at work on a book about modern motherhood.

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