California Gives a Whole New Meaning to the Term “Nanny State”

What Women Really Think
Sept. 2 2011 10:52 AM

California Gives a Whole New Meaning to the Term “Nanny State”

As if it’s not already hard enough being parent—what with school-lunch headaches and trying to find the exact right balance of scheduled but not overscheduled, loving and attentive but not hovering—or a teenager, a proposed law in California would make life just that much more annoying for both.

Rachael Larimore Rachael Larimore

Rachael Larimore is Slate's managing editor.

State assemblyman Tom Ammiano (shockingly, a San Francisco Democrat) has introduced legislation that would require worker’s comp and substitute caregivers to provide break time for all domestic workers, and by domestic workers, he is including the teenager you hire to come watch your kids so you can catch dinner once a month at a restaurant that doesn’t offer crayons with its menus. According to an editorial by state Sen. Doug LaMalfa, anyone who hires a sitter “will be legally obligated to pay at least minimum wage to any sitter over the age of 18 (unless it is a family member), provide a substitute caregiver every two hours to cover rest and meal breaks, in addition to workers' compensation coverage, overtime pay, and a meticulously calculated timecard/paycheck.” (You also have to keep a copy of the statement for three years. This must be great news to the Hoarders producers.)

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I thought that surely this must be an exaggeration, that it couldn’t possibly apply to the teenagers that spend their weekend nights watching Pixar movies, serving up pizza, and tripping over Legos and matchbox cars rather than hanging out with their friends, all for a little spending money or to put toward the college fund. But no, it’s right there in the text of the bill:

Under existing law, employers of persons who engage in specified types of household domestic service and who work less than a specified number of hours are excluded from that definition of employer and are therefore excluded from the requirement to secure the payment of workers' compensation, as specified. This bill would remove that exclusion …

On the bright side, local police aren’t going to be knocking on doors to make sure sitters are being provided with a W-2, a 1099, and a retirement plan. The legislation gives legal redress to domestic workers whose rights have been violated, and employers will be fined if they are found to have been breaking the rules. And I suspect that even teenagers are smart enough to know that if they go around demanding detailed pay stubs and worker’s comp insurance that parents they work for will be only to happy to find someone else. So enforcement won’t likely be high. But why pass legislation that is unlikely to be enforced? It could still have a chilling effect.

Teen unemployment was almost 25 percent this summer. And now California is making it more complicated for teens to engage in work that is always in demand (even when the economy is down, parents need to get away from it all once in a while).

Aside from the air of ridiculousness—the initial analogy that came to mind is health departments going after lemonade stands—it also sends as a bad message. Social conservatives often believe that governments want to herd as many children as possible into institutionalized childcare so they can be indoctrinated. I don’t share that wacky belief and proudly send my kids to public school. But the only way to easily comply with this law for full-time care is to use a nanny service that can send over substitutes or have your child in a daycare center, which lends credence to the notion.

Legislation that protects full-time domestic workers, especially live-in workers who might be on call 24 hours a day, is laudable. But trying to include the occasional sitter or kid who cuts your lawn accomplishes nothing except maybe having a chilling effect on parents hiring babysitters, which makes for cranky parents and poor teenagers.