Sandra Rosales’ voice is tender as she recalls the notes she received from the two girls she took care of in Brooklyn. “If I had to describe you in one word, it would be loving,” one of the nanny, now 9, wrote to Mrs. Rosales last year. “Thank you for encouraging me to be brave.”
Ms. Rosales spent six years with them, working 10 hours a day, five days a week. They were family. So they weren’t.
When Ms Rosales, 54, got Covid in December 2020, the family she worked for told her they would not continue to pay her wages while she was ill.
Something clicked on her that month, when she was lying in her apartment in Queens with a fever that rose to 105 degrees. “I love these kids,” she said. But, she added, “When this situation happened, I was like, ‘I’m not part of this family’.”
The pandemic has torn apart the layers of a long-disintegrating childcare sector. Care workers faced new risks to their safety and had little to protect them. Many felt frustrated by their working conditions — shaped by a culture that experts say devalues domestic work because it is primarily done by women of color — and looked for safer, higher-paying jobs.
Childcare has shrunk, as the number of people who self-identified as childcare workers at the end of 2019 rose to 913,000 at the end of 2021, according to unpublished data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In child care centers, low wages and burnout were some of the top reasons employers lost employees. As of January, more than half of families in the country reported problems finding childcare, and job vacancies in this sector on Indeed are up 8 percent since 2019.
Like many traditionally low-paid workers, some child care workers have seen their wages and benefits rise as a result of labor shortages. The median hourly wage for child care workers in 2021 was $13.22, compared to $11.65 in 2019 and $12.24 in 2020.
But to make the fleeting gains they’ve seen sustainable, workers are finding ways to organize.
For families who have always struggled to find and afford care, a shortage of workers in the industry in the past year and a lack of opportunities in care centers has compounded the challenge, prompting many parents — especially mothers — to quit their jobs so they could watch their children.
Domestic workers fell ill, and few received health care or sick leave. If they are laid off, they often cannot get unemployment benefits. By most estimates, 90 percent of nannies across the country are paid for the books.
“The pandemic has hit an already existing childcare crisis,” said Emily Dills, founder of the Seattle Nanny Network of 35,000 nannies. It is a multi-layered crisis situation. It’s just a complete mess.”
The crisis has emerged as sporadic bright spots for caregivers and families who depend on their help. A number of nannies organizations — including Adventure Nannies and Nannies by Noa, which together have worked with tens of thousands of nannies — have reported that average wages have risen by as much as $10 an hour since before the pandemic, a rise they attribute to tighter supply. of employment, with offers of paid time off and retirement plan on the rise for some workers as well.
HomeWork Solutions, one of the largest domestic worker payroll organizations in the country, said it has seen a nearly double increase in the proportion of families who have contacted it and want to pay their nannies on the books, allowing nannies to qualify for unemployment benefits. The past two years have also prompted families to seek more flexible childcare arrangements, such as sharing nannies, which agencies say often means higher wages and more formal working arrangements.
But caring for children during the remote working period is becoming more difficult, with parents working remotely sometimes disrupting routines and attempts to discipline children. Ms. Rosales, for example, said she was always keen to give the kids she watched in the afternoon yogurt instead of sugary snacks so they wouldn’t have trouble sleeping. But when they ran to their parents, they were sometimes given ice cream, she said.
Home caregivers on the Reddit nanny forum, r/nanny, have shared accounts about micromanagement by employers. In interviews, some nannies said they were reprimanded for failing to stop the child from interrupting the Zoom meeting with the parents.
Some said their attempts to demand higher wages and better conditions were overshadowed by the idea that care work should be “lovely work,” on sentimental currency.
I have to constantly remind myself: ‘Don’t get too emotionally involved,’ said Stephanie Felsenberg, a New Jersey nanny who lost her job early in the pandemic, in part because the parents who hired her started working from home.
Some caregivers had hoped the pandemic would reckon the true value of their work, as the unemployment rate for mothers with infants and young children nearly doubled in 2020. Instead, most found work to be more dangerous. And while wages appear to be rising, caregivers say they’re not all reaping the benefits. Workers say the unevenly spread earnings are hardly enough to offset decades of low wages and poor treatment.
“It’s 10 steps back and a few steps forward,” said Stacey Kono, CEO of Hand in Hand, a national network of local employers.
The turmoil in the sector over the past two years has inspired many domestic and child care workers – who were largely isolated from each other even before the pandemic – to seek ways to organize collectively.
The National Domestic Workers Alliance doubled the number of people participating in its classes and initiatives and distributed $30 million to workers in emergency cash payments. Family child care workers, who act as licensed service providers, also organized: About 40,000 of them in California won their union in 2020 and then their first contract in 2021, a joint effort of AFSCME/UDW and the International Federation of Service Personnel, Locals 99 and 521. The contract included an average wage increase of 15 per cent.
Childcare providers said another bright spot is the growth of resources that support non-traditional care arrangements. In late 2020, Ms. Dells’ organization, in Seattle, heard from dozens of families interested in sharing nannies, so her team created the Nanny Sharing Toolkit, which includes tips on how to use direct deposits to avoid late payments and coordinate the family’s supply of personal protective equipment. The organization’s Facebook group for families looking to share care has tripled during the pandemic to include 3,500 people.
When families share childcare, Dills added, they usually pay their nannies more. Some families have also renegotiated contracts so that their nannies can take their children to work.
Neighborhood organizations also expanded, creating formal bonds between workers who previously only crossed paths when meeting school. The Carol Gardens Nanny Association has grown to 5,000 domestic workers out of 300 during the pandemic, and has expanded from its Brooklyn base to include Long Island and New Jersey.
Ms. Rosales joined the group years ago, after meeting its founder on the street near her employer’s home. Ms. Rosales is undocumented but decided that organizing other domestic workers was worth the risk, she said, especially after spending weeks ill without pay and feeling guilty that she could not send checks back home for her son and daughter in Guatemala.
On a recent Wednesday evening, a group of New York nannies, including Ms. Rosales, gathered on Zoom with local policymakers and employers to plan months of regulation, including a push to persuade more New York families to use labor agreements.
“Your children are looking at you,” Tatiana Bejar, one of the organisers, told parents watching. “They would be better people if they saw that you treated people with respect.”