Mary Poppins Speaks Out

Nannies: dark-skinned women from Trinidad and El Salvador, watching tow-haired charges play in the sand. Fresh-faced Americans from the heartland, eager for adventure-if only their employers would come home before 10 p.m. and relieve them. Medical students from Poland, farm girls from Ireland, teachers from Grenada, many struggling to send money home to their own kids while minding someone else's amid a sea of American toys. Their voices haven't been heard much in the debate over attorney general or the hardships of American working mothers. Even feminists have largely ignored them, forgetting that as women have moved into traditionally male jobs, they've had to find other women to take their place in the home. "Those women tend to be poor, working-class and usually of color," says sociologist Mary Romero, author of "Maid in the U.S.A." "It reminds me of Sojourner Truth's statement: 'Ain't I a woman?'"

Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood weren't the only victims of Nannygate. Placement agencies are getting calls from families suddenly desperate to find legal sitters. "People are panicking," says Eileen Stein of the Gilbert Child Care Agency in Manhattan. Trusted cleaning ladies are being asked embarrassing questions about their taxes and shadow income. High-school babysitters' clubs are jittery too, fearing that families will stop going out to dinner rather than run afoul of the $50-per-quarter social-security rule. Meanwhile, some documented workers are flaunting their status. Spotted on a Manhattan street last week: a nanny pushing a stroller with a blowup of her green card attached to the front.

It's a measure of how haphazard child care is in America that nobody can say how many such workers there are or even agree on what to call them. The International Nanny Association in Austin, Texas, says there are 75,000 to 100,000 "professional, experienced nannies" in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 353,000 full- and part-time "in-home child care" workers last year. That number mysteriously dropped during the 1980s, at a time when mothers with young children went to work in record numbers. But with the vast majority of even legal sitters paid off the books, it's not surprising that some aren't eager to answer government questionnaires. The number of illegal workers is anybody's guess. But, says Lisa Schanzer of Family Extensions Inc., a Connecticut placement agency: "If you sent every illegal in this country home, you'd have a disaster overnight."

Among nannies themselves, reaction to Nannygate is as diverse as their ethnic backgrounds and range of duties. To Zawanda Washington, a 31-year-old American nanny in Dallas, the whole incident shed new light on how cheap many parents are when it comes to child care: "People don't want to pay what it takes to hire someone qualified." Washington can't complain herself-she earns more than $400 a week caring for two children, 4 and 7; she has her own room and bath, paid sick leave, paid health insurance and time to take piano lessons. She also has a master's degree in sociology and two years' training at a prestigious British nanny school. "People with my education and experience expect, bottom line, at least $350 a week," she says. Graduates of American "nanny academies," which blossomed in the 1980s, have similar feelings. Along with CPR, child psychology and bathing techniques, most schools hammer home the gospel of "professionalism" and the need to be paid on the books. "If somebody wanted to hire you to work in an office and said they wouldn't pay social security, you'd get up and leave," says Joy Shelton, who heads the American Council of Nanny Schools. But "trained" U.S. nannies say the abundance of illegal workers in some areas pulls wages down for everyone-and devalues the field. "I think families are risking the welfare of their children when they hire illegals," says Jennifer Healy, 20, who graduated from a Colorado nanny school last year and now cares for 7-month-old Sarah in New York. "In most cases, illegals don't have the training that I got. What if there is an emergency? Would they know what to do?"

Tell that to an immigrant nanny, however, and get set for an earful. "I don't think you have to go to school to learn what to do," says "Stephanie," a native of Jamaica who is now a U.S. citizen. She, too, is fighting for more respect for her field. "People tell me that I could get a better job." But she loves caring for the 3-year-old daughter of two journalists. "Americans say, West Indians come and take our jobs. But would they do this work? A lot of Americans aren't into baby-sitting. They'd rather go to the office."

Many illegals have advanced degrees from their home countries-and the gumption to seek better opportunities. The America they find rarely matches the milk-and-honey stories they heard. The cost of living is higher, the work conditions are harder, and the wait to obtain legal status has stretched longer and longer. "Anita" breaks into tears when she tells of leaving her children, then 3,6 and 9, behind in the Philippines in 1986. "As a mother, it was hard, but I have dreams for them," she says. One of those dreams is to have them join her in America-and when her employers started the legalization process, she was told it would take three years. That was four years ago. "Yesterday the lawyer told me she can't say how much longer it will be. It's moving slower and slower." In the meantime, Anita sends $350 home each month; $1,000 buys a full year of tuition for her children. But she has nightmares that she will never see them again. The Zoe Baird incident has left her even more fearful: "I'm afraid they will send us home," she sobs, "and I won't have enough savings to send my children to college."

Behind every illegal is a story of enterprise and sacrifice. "Flor" came the hard way from Peru in 1986 when she was 20. Her family scraped to buy what they thought was safe transit for her, but she was abandoned in Panama, robbed, and had to work her way overland through Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. She made a midnight sprint across the border at Tijuana. "Everyone running with me was caught. A policeman with a gun told me to stop, but I didn't. I was so scared." She hid under a car, was smuggled through safe houses by paid coyotes, often packed in tiny quarters with dozens of others. Finally, she joined her brother in New York City and a family gave her a chance as a part-time nanny for their 4-week-old daughter, even though Flor spoke no English. "They had faith that I would learn," she says. The family also helped sponsor her; she won her legal papers last summer. She now has a husband, a 2-year-old son, and plans to attend college next fall. "Someday I will tell my son my story, so he can do better," she says. She has no complaints about Zoe Baird: "She was giving an opportunity to somebody."

All too often, nannies aren't treated so well-and illegals are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. They feel powerless to complain in the face of outrageous demands --even sexual advances from employers. But a few are fighting back. "Roselia," an illegal from El Salvador, worked for one year for a Los Angeles family that made her sleep on the kitchen floor, piled chores on her, then fired her, still owing her much of the $100-a-week they had agreed to pay. Emboldened after she won a work permit for another job, Roselia sued them for back pay last year, and won a $5,000 default judgment when they failed to show up in court.

Like employers, most illegals were surprised to learn that even undocumented workers are expected to file social-security taxes. Many are still reluctant to leave a paper trail or take deductions from their earnings. But more and more domestic workers are hearing that amassing Worker Compensation, unemployment insurance and retirement benefits is well worth the hit in cash flow. Donna Brazile, chief of staff to Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, spreads that message tirelessly. Brazile's mother worked as a domestic for 22 years in New Orleans, caring for a white family's three children, and later their children, as well as raising her own nine kids. Brazile says she didn't mind that other kids saw more of her mother than she did. The real indignity came when her mother suffered heart problems and applied for disability benefits in 1988, only to find there was no record of her with the Social Security Administration. She died a few months later at 52. "My mother bought into the cash system. And I understand it-believe me," says Brazile. "But I'm telling low-income black women to get into the system. In the long haul, it's worth it. The last thing a domestic worker needs at the end of a hard life is not to have benefits."

Whatever their legal or tax status, most nannies agree on one thing: Americans should value their kids more. Some families do stretch their budgets to provide good care, and treat their employees fairly. But as nannies know better than anyone, others spend more money and time on their cars, and their VCRs, than on the people who care for their children. INA president Kelly Campbell, herself a nanny, says: "Until we get to the point where we value our children as much as our material possessions' we're going to have problems with child care." And problems, too, with the people who provide it.

How much does America value its kids? Here's how average weekly wages for full-time in-home child-care providers ranked against other jobs in 1992.

Child-care worker          $154

Cleaning person            $191

Cashier                    $219

Waiter/waitress            $222

Bartender                  $251

Teacher (pre-K through

 high school)              $561 

Firefighter                $636

Registered nurse           $662  
Join the Discussion