The Parent Trap

The priorities of American families are on display every day in the classified ads of urban newspapers. The requirements for child-care help are often extremely detailed: MUST HAVE EXPERIENCE WITH YOUNG CHILDREN. BE ENERGETIC, MATURE, LOVING, RESPONSIBLE. NONSMOKER. EXCELLENT ENGLISH. REFERENCES REQUIRED. WILLING TO WORK LONG HOURS, DO HOUSEWORK, COOKING, LAUNDRY. DRIVER'S LICENSE A PLUS ... Rarely, if ever, do these words appear: CITIZENSHIP OR GREEN CARD. MUST PAY ALL APPLICABLE TAXES.

The triumphant Year of the Woman had scarcely concluded when one of its dirty little secrets came spilling out of Washington last week. Reliable statistics. aren't available; nobody wants to be quoted by name. But a growing number of working mothers are quietly depending on the same kind of illegal, off-the-books child care that Zoe Baird did. Of course, she was different. A designee for attorney general, the nation's top law-enforcement officer, should be beyond reproach. But she's hardly alone. Around the Perrier cooler in America's great law firms, young women partners looked at Baird and shuddered at the thought: there but for the grace of Bill go I. And in factories and mail-order houses, the same working-class women who resented Baird out of her job had to rush home to relieve the neighbor who's watching the kids-and wants to be paid only in cash.

More than anything else, Baird's situation shined a new light on the dilemma of working mothers struggling to find affordable, quality child care. Only about 5 percent of American families have babysitters who live in or go to their homes each day. The rest rely on grandmothers or other relatives, torturous split shifts between Mom and Dad, or day-care centers, or drop their kids with other women who often care for several other children. No situation is ideal, and that was part of the frustration many Americans felt over Baird. "People were angry that a woman making $500,000 a year complained about child-care problems when they are trying to cope on so much less," said Linda Eads, a former federal prosecutor who specializes in women's legal issues at Southern Methodist University. "They said, 'How can you say you couldn't find good child care when I make $15,000 and somehow I found it? Or is your child entitled to some kind of real special care? What about my kid?'"

A generation ago nannies were a luxury only the most upper-class Americans could afford. But now more families at all income levels are paying sitters to work in their homes, thanks in part to the prevalence of illegal immigrants willing to work at wages. During one recent survey, Dana Friedman, copresident of the Families and Work Institute in New York, says she was stunned to find how many assembly-line workers in Texas had nannies at home. "We thought at first it was a computer error," she says. "Then we discovered, no, these women had Mexican women coming across the border and they were paying them $10 a day for in-home care." In Chicago, Christine Thornton Wiener of Nannies Midwest, Ltd., estimates that undocumented workers account for 60 to 70 percent of the nanny market in her area. And many families who would never think of hiring an illegal worker don't think twice about paying their American babysitters in cash, off the books. The Internal Revenue Service estimates that of the 2 million households in America that employ domestic help, only one quarter pay social-security taxes for them.

Many working mothers insist that's the only way they can swing it. "It's virtually impossible to find somebody willing to do the work for what I can pay [$5 an hour]," says Blanca, a single Hispanic-American mother in Albuquerque, N.M., with children in the second and fourth grades. She's never asked her Panamanian nanny whether she has a green card. Blanca doesn't want to know. "Everybody I know hires illegal aliens," says Judith, a Texas attorney married to another attorney. They pay two illegal domestic workers-one lives in, one lives out-$130 a week each in cash to help with their household and three young children. With their combined six-figure income, that doesn't sound like much, but Judith says it adds up, particularly since they are paying $1,000 a month in preschool tuition. "We know we're breaking the law, but we can't live without them."

The moral questions are complicated by the fact that it is extremely tempting to break the law, and enormously difficult to obey it. Technically, you must pay social-security taxes for anyone you pay more than $50 in a three-month period for work around your home-from a weekly cleaning woman to the teenage girl who babysits once a month to the neighbor's son who mows your lawn. Some confusing exemptions exist-if the cleaning woman sets her own hours, works for other people, too, and brings her own broom, she may qualify as an "independent contractor" instead. But the definitions are so gray that even tax lawyers and accountants throw up their hands.

Some families that start down the legal path later regret it. For instance, couples who scrupulously file with the government have been hit with fines for making errors or submitting forms late. Families who take the time and trouble to sponsor an alien for an immigration visa find that it requires dozens of forms and hundreds of dollars in fees. And the exercise may be pointless: the process can now take as long as 10 or 20 years, because a 1990 law severely limits the number of "unskilled labor" visas issued annually. By that time, the kids will have grown and won't need a babysitter.

Laws like that seem to be made to be broken. "The reality is if you find someone who is sweet, loving and wonderful, but they're not legal, you'll take them," says one divorced mother, a physician in Baltimore. After her son was born almost four years ago, she hired several legal child-care workers, but there were always problems. "The last one gave me three days' notice and took off. I went to an agency and hired a Filipino with proper papers. But the next thing I know I find her leaving my 5-month-old son on the changing table while she went to the bathroom. The woman I have now has a master's degree in education-but no green card."

In some urban areas, there's a United Nations of immigrant nannies, from Eastern Europe and Asia as well as Central America and the Caribbean. Some have training in teaching, medicine, nursing or nutrition from their home countries. "You'd rather have that kind of person watching your children," says one Chicago attorney, "than someone who's been fired from McDonald's."

Owners of child-care placement services bristle at such talk and insist there is a ready supply of qualified American labor. "We see college graduates who want to save up for graduate school and teachers wanting to supplement their incomes," says Eileen Stein, head of the Gilbert Child Care Agency in New York City. "If Zoe Baird had come here, we would have found somebody legal who was also an excellent child-care person," agrees Polly Langbort of A Choice Nanny, another Manhattan service. But many agency owners say that families seeking to hire child-care workers often have wildly unrealistic expectations. Mike Bailey, owner of the Child Care Connection in Northridge, Calif., says parents often call and say, "'I want a nanny who's energetic, clean and neat, can cook and clean, speaks English, is available before I go to work and after I get back home.' That means arriving at 6 a.m. and staying till 10, and they're expected to be on call the rest of the evening. 'And oh, by the way, we want to pay her $100 a week'."

In some parts of the country, illegal domestic workers have been part of the culture for generations. Along the border with Mexico, scores of undocumented workers simply walk across to the American side, do live-in work during the week and return to their families on weekends. Immigration agents are outnumbered and often powerless to stop them. (One U.S. border guard near San Diego described his job more as "crowd control" than apprehension.) Hiring such workers has put employers at risk for sanctions since the Simpson-Mizzoli immigration reform of 1986. But federal agents rarely enforce the law in domestic situations; they spend what little manpower they have in raiding factories. Bailey of Child Care Connection gripes that some rival agencies serve as conduits for illegals, working in cahoots with coyotes who smuggle them across the border. Last fall he complained to the Immigration and Naturalization Service about the practice but got nowhere. "They just wanted to bust garment makers," he says.

But households can be sweatshops, too. "Knock on any door in Encino" and you'll find cheap, undocumented workers working at subsistence wages, says Carmina Cuilty-McGee, a California vocational-rehab counselor whose Mexican family and friends have worked as immigrant labor. In Beverly Hills and other wealthy enclaves, "many of these people are not getting even half of what Zoe Baird paid," says Jose de Paz, executive director of the California Immigrant Workers Association. "You have people locked in for a whole week, afraid of Immigration, afraid of being busted and deported."

Some domestic workers are starting to fight back. Nancy Cervantes, an employment-rights attorney who volunteers her time to CHIRLA (Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights of Los Angeles), tells of one client, "Concepcion," who worked for 18 months in a household of five adults and three children, doing all their cooking, cleaning, washing and child care, typically working from 6 a.m. till well past midnight, six days a week, for $100 a week. Recently, a court awarded her a $114,000 default judgment against the family-they never even showed up for the hearing. Did Concepcion have immigration papers? "It never came up," says Cervantes. "It is irrelevant to her legal rights to be paid decently and to make a claim. She was treated like chattel."

For every tale of exploitation, there's an Emma Lazarus story. "Monica," a former journalist, and her lawyer husband, in Houston, have hired at least 20 illegals in the past 20 years, mostly from Central America, to do various domestic chores. They have helped all of them begin the legalization process, she says, and all of them are now running their own small businesses or doing other kinds of work. "I feel the people coming into this country are desperate for opportunity. They're really trying to achieve something," she says. "I have paid medical bills, taken them to hospitals and clinics when they were sick and put together resumes." "Lorraine," an actress and mother in New York, also hired a young, illegal Peruvian woman as a babysitter and went through a five-year process of sponsoring her-even taking an extension course at a community college to learn the procedure. "Why did I do this? Because both of my grandmothers came to this country as immigrant domestic workers. It's been the route for women always. Their grandchildren are now all successful professionals. People here keep lending a hand to the next entry level." What's more, Lorraine says, "many of us are paying well above minimum wage. My babysitter is making more in my home than my husband's secretaries make."

And what about taxes? Lorraine hasn't paid them to date, because, like Zoe Baird, she didn't think it was possible to pay social security for an illegal worker. She also dreads the hassle. "Do I have to hire an accountant? I hired a babysitter so I would have time to work-not spend it filling out forms." In fact, the risk of getting caught paying off the books is far greater than the risk of getting nabbed for immigration violations. An IRS audit can accidentally raise embarrassing questions about child-care arrangements. If the nanny files for social security years later when she turns 65, and can prove who her employers were, the IRS can demand stiff retribution from them: 100 percent of back taxes, plus interest and penalties in some cases, with no statute of limitations.

Even so, many families say it's very difficult to find child-care workers who are willing to be paid on the books. "Many of these people are sending money back home to support their own family and they can't afford any deductions," says Dana Friedman. Even many U.S. citizens who do child-care or cleaning work prefer to stay in the underground economy; the wages are so low that they couldn't afford to live on their incomes if they paid taxes. Most families go along. "It's more cash for them and cheaper for us," says Kathleen, a Manhattan mother of three.

Many child-care and labor experts argue that the right thing to do is to pay child-care workers more, so they can afford to pay taxes, and log retirement benefits, and still take home a living wage. Higher pay would also raise the status of the child-care profession, which would in turn attract higher-caliber workers into the field. But at that point, many more American families wouldn't be able to afford in-home help and would have to resort to less desirable solutions.

Many working mothers are counting on the Clinton administration for help with their dilemmas, and some measures are likely soon. Last week senators reintroduced the Family and Medical Leave Act, twice vetoed by George Bush, that would require all businesses with more than 50 employees to guarantee them a 12-week leave after the birth or adoption of a child. A tax-simplification provision that would allow employers to pay social security for domestic workers annually, not quarterly, may also win passage later this year. But such measures are just child's play. Simplifying social-security forms won't go very far toward halting the underground economy, and 12 weeks isn't very long in the life of a child.

Some activists in the raging child-care debate have called for more sweeping government day-care programs, longer school days and years and greater tax credits for using legal, on-the-books workers. Some say mothers should stay home until their children outgrow the need for hands-on care. Still others argue for rewriting the nation's immigration laws yet again. California's Jose de Paz says the nation should admit that employer sanctions haven't stemmed the flow of illegal workers and should reverse them, a step that would allow child-care workers to organize and press for better wages and conditions. Don Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform vehemently disagrees, particularly with so many Americans out of work. "We're turning to illegal exploitation because it's too inconvenient to let wages go up. People think they are entitled to quality in-home care for dirt-ball wages ... That's got to stop."

The arguments run in endless circles. If there is any agreement in the whole tangled issue, it's that the Zoe Baird flameout may bring new urgency to and understanding of the child-care issue, just as Anita Hill did with sexual harassment. "I'm really hoping we are past the righteous stage and can start to focus on the problem we have in this country with child care for people of every background and every job," says Patty Murray, a newly elected senator from Washington state. The answers are still elusive. But it would be fitting if the sequel to the Year of the Woman became the Year of Who's-Minding-Her-Kids.

of all American women with children under the age of 6 are in the labor force. How do they care for their children?

are cared for in their own homes. Of this group 15% are cared for by their father, 8% by a grandparent, 5.3% by a nonrelative, 2% by some other relative.

are cared for in someone else's home. Of this group 24% are in a nonrelative's home, 13% in a relative's home.

are cared for in an organized child-care facility.

are cared for by their mother at work.

SOURCE: CENSUS BUREAU, 1988 DATA. NUMBERS DO NOT ADD DUE TO ROUNDING.

If you pay more than $50 in a three-month period to anyone for work around your home, you are required to pay social-security taxes. The big exception is for independent contractors-gardeners who bring their own rakes and work for several different employers. Despite Baird's experience, talk to a lawyer.

Get an employer ID number from the Internal Revenue Service. Pay social-security taxes quarterly-15.3% of gross income-even for illegal aliens.

If you pay more than $1,000 per quarter, federal unemployment tax of up to $56 is due each year.

Check with your state tax office for disability and worker comp payments. Most are due quarterly.

Employee is also obligated to pay income taxes. If you withhold for her, payments are due quarterly.

Start at your state labor department, where you file for an Alien Employment certification. Not only must you provide background data on your babysitter, but you also must show failed efforts to hire an American worker. Typically the state wants you to advertise the job, offering prevailing wages. Eventually, the state will pass this file to a federal agent for a second approval; the process can take two years.

Having survived the hall of mirrors, now you wander in the wilderness. First file an Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker with the Immigration Service. Your employee then waits for a "priority number" to come up. Waits and waits: this month the INS was processing claims from Oct. 22, 1987. If her number is called, she must return to her home country, where the U.S. consulate awards her an immigrant visa. This visa entitles her to a "green card," which is no longer green, and allows her to work legally.

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