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Nannies look back on a tumultuous year, from family moves to remote schooling to lost wages

"There are so many women in such dire financial straits that, despite the long hours and poor pay, they are willing to take those jobs anyway," said one recruitment professional.
Sara Sims with her nephews.
Sara Sims with her nephews. Sims had worked as a nanny in the Chicago suburbs for a decade but found herself without a job in the early days of the pandemic.Carolina Sanchez / for NBC News

When offices, schools and day care facilities shut their doors last year in response to Covid-19, some of the people most swiftly and significantly impacted didn’t work in any of those places: nannies. Now, looking back on a tumultuous year, nannies say some things will never be the same — for better or worse.

Indispensable parts of the system for millions of middle- and upper-income families — nannies saw their jobs, economic security and sometimes even their living situations thrown into disarray. Some found themselves on the front lines of the pandemic, battling Covid-19 after contracting it from the families that employed them.

“They got hit very hard, very quickly,” said Elizabeth Malson, executive director of the U.S. Nanny Association. “When things opened back up again, nannies had a very quick rebound, but what changed dramatically was two things — the need for e-learning skills, and there was now more competition, because of all the teachers and day care workers who had lost their jobs.”

More than one in four nannies reported losing a job because of Covid-19. Now, requests for nannies who can also teach have mushroomed.

Nannies were dismissed en masse in the early days of the pandemic, as parents working in offices were sent home and many families were reluctant to allow a non-family member into their home. According to a survey by the International Nanny Association, more than one in four nannies reported losing a job because of Covid-19, and nearly 40 percent said their income had dropped. The tide began to turn later in the spring, when it became apparent that lockdowns and remote schooling would continue for weeks, if not months. Parents who had settled in to work-from-home arrangements increasingly looked for nannies who could help their kids with schoolwork.

The most affluent families asked their nannies to move in with them — even in places like New York City, where square footage is at a premium. “I think we’ve probably seen an increase of about 70 percent in requests for live-in nannies,” said Jo Barrow, CEO of Nannies by Noa. “It’s changed dramatically,” she said, adding that requests for nannies who can also teach have mushroomed. “The expectations have grown… they’re looking for one person that can wear more hats,” Barrow said. The International Nanny Association found that nearly half of its survey respondents had been tasked with virtual learning or homeschooling in 2020.

In particular, nannies with advanced degrees, fluency in multiple languages and the willingness or ability to put their own lives on hold in order to travel with a family are in high demand. “Those candidates are in the most competitive market we’ve ever seen,” said Shenandoah Davis, CEO and co-founder of the placement agency Adventure Nannies. “There has been more than one bidding war we’ve witnessed.” In high-priced cities like New York, the most sought-after nannies can command six-figure salaries, she said.

In New York, nannies with advanced degrees, fluency in multiple languages and willingness to travel can command six-figure salaries.

But the higher pay some nannies have been able to charge masks a bifurcation in the industry. “On the other side of it, there are families posting jobs on Facebook — 60-hr work weeks for $500 a week, which is illegal and significantly below minimum wage,” Davis said. The challenge is that there are so many women in such dire financial straits that, despite the long hours and poor pay, they are willing to take those jobs anyway. “There are a lot of people trying to get nanny jobs who aren't aware of the law and aren't aware of their rights,” she said.

This weighs especially heavily on undocumented immigrants, many of whom lost nannying jobs early in the pandemic and have been facing increasingly desperate financial circumstances. “Because the population of domestic workers who most often are taken advantage of are most often the people who aren't able to work legally… they also are often afraid of speaking up to their employers,” Davis said. “They’re missing out on so many of the basic rights that come from having a job that’s on payroll.”

There also is the ongoing risk of Covid-19 itself. Sara Sims had worked as a nanny in the Chicago suburbs for a decade, yet the 33-year-old found herself without a job in the early days of the pandemic when the parents who had employed her for two years were sent home on reduced pay — a combination Sims said forced them to dismiss her. “It was a difficult conversation to have, but I completely understood,” she said. “There were tears.”

Sims landed a new job later that spring, caring for a four-year-old and an infant who had been in day care. The parents’ unease with their baby’s potential exposure prompted them to seek out a nanny, and Sims said the parents specifically asked that she limit her activities in her off-hours, such as not socializing in groups.

Sara Sims with her nephews.
Sara Sims. Carolina Sanchez / for NBC News

Bob King, attorney and founder of the law firm Legally Nanny, said intrusive questions from prospective employers have become much more common. “There are many more inquiries into nannies’ personal lives,” he said, even though in California, where his practice is based, nannies’ off-hours autonomy is legally protected. “Employers can’t make any employment decisions based on lawful non-work conduct,” he said. “It became sort of legally sticky to inquire as to what people were doing outside of work hours.”

Based on the recent calls they’ve been fielding from parents, agency owners say vaccines are shaping up to be the next dividing line. Nannies who are willing to be vaccinated — and those who have access to the vaccine — are moving to the front of the line. “What we’re seeing a lot of now, since the vaccine has become so much more really available, is families prioritizing candidates who have already been vaccinated or plan on getting vaccinated,” Davis said.

Nannies who are willing to be vaccinated are moving to the front of the line.

As for Sims, she contracted a case of Covid-19 in April that landed her in the hospital. Her recovery was so arduous, she said, that she had to quit her job. “I couldn't really recover all the way and… I didn't want to go back in the home if I wasn't feeling better,” she said. Instead, she supervised and taught her nephews during the months when they had remote schooling.

A perennial challenge for nanny placement agencies and lawyers who work in the domestic and household employment space is the widespread practice of paying nannies under the table. Agency owners and trade group representatives say one pandemic change they expect to continue is that more nannies want to be paid legally.

“A lot of people getting paid under the table became more cognizant of the need to be paid legally and be on the books,” Barrow said. "That’s the silver lining.”

“There’s a large percentage of nannies who are not paid on the books and those people could not collect unemployment and all of the benefits,” said Laura Schroeder, a nanny in Charleston, S.C., and president of the International Nanny Association. When thousands of parents dismissed their nannies in late February and March last year, Schroeder said, “That really put them in a difficult position.” The association is helping more of these nannies navigate the process of being compensated legally, she added.

Schroeder said being paid above board proved to be a financial lifesaver when she contracted a serious case of Covid-19 over the summer. “I was seriously ill with Covid — I was in the hospital for four days… and then I was on home health care for two weeks after that on oxygen,” she said. Because she was a legal employee, though, she and her employer were eligible for emergency sick leave benefits in the CARES Act. “My employers paid me in full the entire time, but they got that benefit reimbursed to them,” she said.