Nannies Are Suffering Behind Closed Doors During COVID-19

Child care work, mostly done by women and women of color, offers little workplace protections. And the pandemic has only made nannies more vulnerable.

The first thing Arianna does every day when she arrives at work is change her clothes. As a nanny in New York City, she doesn’t wear a uniform, but the mother of the twin babies she cares for has asked her to change into a clean outfit after she travels by subway to their apartment in Manhattan.

The requirement, on its own, doesn’t feel unreasonable given the way COVID-19 ravaged New York City. But that isn’t the only requirement demanded of Arianna, who’s using a pseudonym for fear of retaliation from her employer.

The 55-year-old, who’s been nannying for nearly 30 years, told HuffPost her current employers ask her to get COVID-19 tests without reimbursement, consistently ask where she’s been and who she’s been with on the weekends, and have forced her to take unpaid vacation time when she refuses to travel with the family despite coronavirus safety guidelines. What’s worse is her employers do not apply the same standard of safety and scrutiny to themselves that they expect of Arianna.

When she proposed a contract between her and her employers to agree in writing to the hours she will work, her vacation days and COVID-19 safety regulations, the wife and husband repeatedly ignored her.

“When they shut down the idea of a contract, it made me feel like they had no respect for me,” she said. “They are only worried about what they want to do. They don’t care about my concerns or safety.”

And as an undocumented immigrant, Arianna often feels like she has no other choice than to comply with their demands.

Arianna isn’t the only nanny suffering behind closed doors because of COVID-19. With many parents working from home, kids learning remotely and the constant threat of exposure, the demand for at-home child care has skyrocketed. Although New York state offers more legal regulations for domestic workers than exist on the federal level, the protections for nannies are still limited. Child care is often dismissed as not real work because it takes place in the home, and the majority of that work is done by women.

Combined with the lack of COVID-19 regulations for domestic workers, nannies like Arianna are forced to work in unsafe conditions with little to no oversight.

“The power imbalance here is rooted in the employer’s false belief that their home is not a workplace. And as such they believe they don’t have to abide by any rules,” said Rocio Avila, senior employment law counsel and state policy director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “As a result, they don’t necessarily practice what perhaps they expect from their own employers.”

Grueling Work, No Breaks

HuffPost spoke with three nannies, including Arianna, who work and live in New York City. All three said their employers demand full transparency from them during COVID-19, often violating their privacy: “Where were you this weekend?” “Who have you seen in the last week?” “You’re not getting together with family for the holidays, right?” And while communication is good, it’s often a one-way street.

“It feels like I have to give a full disclosure of everything, step by step, where I’m going and who I’m seeing. It’s weird because I can’t really ask them the same questions. It doesn’t feel like it’s mutual,” said Gabi Menezes, a 37-year-old nanny in Brooklyn. The only way Menezes is able to find out where her employers have been and if they’ve been abiding by COVID-19 safety protocols is to check their Instagram pages.

Menezes, an immigrant from Brazil, had nannied for the same family for five years when she got COVID-19 in February 2020. She worked for a week when she got back, not realizing she had contracted COVID-19, and then the entire city went into lockdown. During that time, Menezes did not go into work but she said her employer continued to pay her a portion of her salary. When she went back to work in June, her employer cut her hours because both parents were working from home.

When Menezes started working for a new family over the summer, she was expected to bring the children to her apartment during the day because both parents were working from home. In October, Menezes contracted COVID-19 again, which she suspects happened while working or commuting there by subway. While she quarantined for two weeks, her employers paid her for one week but not the second week.

“I told them I was not particularly comfortable coming in, but they still expected me to. They told me they couldn’t pay me if I didn’t come in. And I wasn’t in a place where I could afford not to go in.”

- Allie Ayers, nanny

Sometimes, employers ― like 27-year-old Allie Ayers’ ― simply did not believe COVID-19 was a real threat. Ayers has been nannying for a family in Brooklyn for two and a half years when she was abruptly let go in April during the height of the pandemic in New York City. She had worked for about a month during the initial outbreak and said the anxiety was crippling. As an in-home nanny, Ayers did not have the ability to work from home during lockdown.

“I told them I was not particularly comfortable coming in, but they still expected me to,” Ayers said of her employers, who had two small children. “They told me they couldn’t pay me if I didn’t come in. And I wasn’t in a place where I could afford not to go in.”

Her concerns were always “immediately squashed” and her employers consistently made Ayers feel like she was overreacting about COVID-19. “It was weird because I had this really wonderful relationship with them. They had always kind of felt like an extension of family in New York for me,” Ayers said. “So, all of a sudden, when our opinions didn’t align around COVID, how quickly their way of speaking to me changed. That was definitely hard.”

There were other issues, too: employers not reimbursing for PPE or COVID-19 tests and cutting salaries because they were now working remotely. Without playdates, nannies were left with the hard job of entertaining a child alone for a full five or six hours. Two of the nannies said their employers threatened to fire them if they didn’t work on vacation trips, despite government guidelines to avoid travel during lock down. Other than when the children were napping, all three nannies said they were not given any personal breaks during work hours.

The isolation, especially during COVID-19, weighed heavily on Ayers. “You don’t have co-workers when you’re nannying,” she said. “You don’t feel like you have a leg to stand on and that’s probably why I continued to work past when I was comfortable.”

A Marginalized Workforce

Nanny work is very much gendered and often not viewed by society as real work, and the majority of the child care workforce is made up of women and women of color. In New York state, women account for 93% of domestic workers, a category that includes nannies, house cleaners and other caregivers. Despite representing only 13% of the New York workforce, Black workers make up 30% of all domestic workers. And 62% of nannies in the state are immigrants, many of whom, like Arianna, are undocumented.

With a largely unregulated workforce made up of some of the most vulnerable, it’s no surprise that racism and xenophobia is alive and well in the domestic worker industry.

“Discrimination law doesn’t extend to nannies. That in and of itself tells you that racism is institutionalized,” said Avila, the NDWA senior employment law counsel and state policy director. “And it’s institutionalized for a very specific reason: Employers may not say it expressly, but they want to retain the power to select who enters their home on the basis of race, gender, religion and any other protected category.”

That was apparent even in the conversations HuffPost had with the three nannies. Ayers, who is white, traveled frequently with the family she nannied for and became close with the children. She felt like she was part of the family. Arianna, who is a Black undocumented immigrant, said her experience as a nanny has been very different. Employers often assume she will do other work around the house that’s not included in her job duties, like empty the dishwasher, clean the kitchen or take out the trash.

“If a nanny comes all the way from England or somewhere else ― they respect that nanny. But if you’re a Black nanny, they don’t respect us,” Arianna said.

Nannies aren’t afforded the same government protections as other workers. Historically, domestic workers have been specifically excluded from labor protections like minimum wage, health and safety regulations, and a worker’s right to take rest breaks. Anti-discrimination laws also exclude nannies because they don’t work in traditional workspaces, meaning it’s legal in the U.S. for employers to discriminate against domestic workers based on race, national origin and/or gender.

“So long as the government continues to not invest and treat this work like it is ― a real profession ― the direct message to the employers is that they don’t need to employ safety standards or other basic workplace guidelines.”

- Rocio Avila, National Domestic Workers Alliance

“The worker has to be paid and treated like every other worker because they are like every other worker,” Avila said. “So long as the government continues to not invest and treat this work like it is ― a real profession ― the direct message to the employers is that they don’t need to employ safety standards or other basic workplace guidelines.”

To fill the legal gaps in protections for domestic workers, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Vice President Kamala Harris, then a senator from California, introduced the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2019. With the help of NDWA, the federal bill aims to protect domestic workers under federal labor and civil rights laws. The legislation creates a baseline of workers rights including meal and rest breaks, paid sick leave, overtime pay and affordable health care and retirement benefits.

“Passing this Bill of Rights will demonstrate that domestic work is not only work, but work that is critical to our economy and society,” Jayapal, Harris and NDWA president Ai-jen Poo wrote in a 2018 op-ed for CNN. “We must extend protections to those who have been silenced and overlooked for decades.”

At least nine states have passed similar labor protection laws to domestic workers on the state level, including Oregon, California, New York and Massachusetts. The city of Seattle has also passed protections for domestic workers.

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights has the potential to revolutionize the entire child care industry, and give much-needed basic protections to millions of workers across the country. Arianna is one of many working to pass the bill into law, but for now, she says, the best place to start is to give domestic workers the dignity and respect they deserve.

“I wish my employer would be reasonable and respectable to us as nannies because we take care of their most precious, prized possession ― their children,” she said. “They should treat us like human beings, look at us as real people. Take our work as real work.”