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Nannies no longer rule the roost

For decades in D.C., good caregivers were wooed and well-paid. The recession changed all that.
Image: Liz Caceres
Liz Caceres of Rockville looks after her new charges at D.C.'s Friendship Park. She struggled to find a job after her last employer experienced a layoff, she said.Katherine Frey / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

One Potomac mother of five used to prepare for interviews with prospective nannies like a Hollywood audition. She cleaned her house, made sure the children were quietly coloring and "glamified" the family's lifestyle, which includes regular trips overseas. She capped off talks with a tour of an au pair suite so deluxe it was mentioned in a glossy home magazine.

This year, the pressure is off. When she recently posted an ad online for a new nanny, she was inundated with responses from qualified candidates and unemployed women seeking a job, any job. She ended up hiring a nanny agency to vet candidates.

A fundamental shift of power has occurred in Washington in recent months, and it has nothing to do with politics. For decades, good nannies were a hot commodity in a town rife with workaholics, where the percentage of working women is higher than the national average. The best nannies had to be snapped up immediately and kept happy with regular raises and other benefits, lest they be poached right off the playground by conniving parents.

In the past six to eight months, though, agencies report a deluge of available nannies as parents losing their jobs or downsizing turn to cheaper child-care options, including staying at home. Neighborhood e-mail lists are bristling with parents posting jobs for their former nannies. ("Dream nanny available immediately!") Real-life Mary Poppinses who once had their pick of jobs are finding themselves out of work for weeks, or months, at a time.

Parents have more choices, and some are thrilled about it.

"Before, I felt like they were interviewing us. . . . Now, I'll be in the driver's seat," said Lesley Kalan, a consultant from Alexandria who is seeking a nanny for her three children.

'Desperate for work'
Lorna Spencer, co-owner of A Choice Nanny in Columbia, said that her business is down 50 percent in the past year and that the number of out-of-work nannies she is trying to place has doubled. Spencer used to have 10 qualified candidates to send to families; now she has 20 or more.

"We're finding a lot of parents getting laid off, and they have to let the nannies go," she said. "We have many nannies desperate for work . . . calling us every day."

Even in good times, nannies have little job security and work for relatively low wages. A nanny in the Washington area makes about $16 an hour, according to a survey by the International Nanny Association. About 13 percent of nannies across the country reported being unemployed last year, up from 8 percent in 2006, according to association estimates.

Liz Caceres, 34, of Rockville lost her nanny job with a District family earlier this year after the father was laid off, she said. She returned from Christmas vacation and learned that the family wanted to slash her hours to one day a week.

Finding another position was tough, Caceres said. She placed an ad online but did not receive a single call. After a month, however, she was able to network her way to new employment through some babysitting connections.

Boom-time luxuries evaporate
During boom times, nannies had their pick of positions and handsome benefits, according to Barbara Kline, president of White House Nannies, a placement agency in Bethesda.

"I've heard nannies deliberate between a swimming pool and a Lexus, between a month of paid vacation and a trip to Europe with the family," Kline wrote in "White House Nannies: True Tales from the Other Department of Homeland Security," her 2005 memoir. "Stock options and signing bonuses were also common nanny lures."

Most of those perks evaporated as the economy faltered, Kline said.

Nannies and nanny agencies report that the power shift appears to have gone to some parents' heads. Prospective employers are offering some candidates salaries well below average and pushing them to handle additional tasks such as housecleaning. Some families have tried to deduct "rent" from live-in nannies' salaries -- unheard of before the economic downturn, according to Debra Weiss, director of placement services for Staffing Solutions@Mothers' Aides in Fairfax Station.

"It's unbelievable," said Ali Burket, 28, a government affairs specialist in Alexandria who is giving up her nanny in favor of cheaper day care but is trying to help the nanny find another job. "When we hired our nanny a year ago, the difference was like night and day. The nannies were setting the terms, and it was very much a seller's market. Now my poor nanny can't find a job."

One woman wanted to pay the nanny $300 a week to care for two children and do all the housework. "It's insulting," Burket said. "Her attitude was like, 'You should be happy with what you get because of the economy.' "

'Find somebody with blond hair'
Jaclyn Gobuluk, owner of Metropolitan Nannies in Herndon, said that in the past six months, she has noticed that some parents make clear their preference for a college-educated, American nanny, even if the hire has less child-rearing experience than an immigrant nanny might have. Most do not say it directly, Gobuluk says.

"They want American nannies now. . . . They feel like there are so many choices out there, they're going to be really picky and that's the best choice for their children," Gobuluk said. "I had one client who said, 'My child doesn't like anybody with brown hair. Find somebody with blond hair.' I'm like, 'Hmm. Your child doesn't like somebody, or you don't like somebody, with brown hair?' We want people to be comfortable, but that's pushing it."

When a former employer of nanny Karen Taylor recently posted a job-search note on her behalf on a private school e-mail list, she described Taylor as "the closest person we have ever met to Mary Poppins."

Taylor, 39, a Fairfax County resident, has 21 years of local experience, makes double the going hourly rate and attended nanny school -- graduating from the American Nanny Plan in Claremont, Calif., two decades ago.

But since losing her job seven months ago -- the single father who employed her was downsizing -- she has had trouble finding another position.

'No safety net'
Family and friends have helped her with living expenses, but it is scary, she said, because "I have no safety net."

"This is the worst I've ever seen it," Taylor said. "We're all kind of surprised at how long it's taking" to find work.

Kalan, the mother from Alexandria, describes the luxury of having many candidates to choose from after the birth of son Cooper this spring. She recalls once having to settle for a nanny who did not drive.

Now she expects to hire someone who can not only drive but speak Spanish and English fluently, someone who is good with her newborn and able to engage the two older children.

Kalan's dream nanny is someone who would be "in our yard blowing bubbles with my 4-year-old, helping them set up the kiddie pool, having tea parties with my daughter and playing school. . . . My list of demands is getting a little longer now," she said.