THE TIME HAD FINALLY COME to hire a nanny. Three-year-old Jack was about to start his first year of preschool and my husband and I were expecting a new baby in the same month. We both were working full time at demanding jobs and the idea of trying to juggle it all by ourselves was overwhelming. We needed to find help.
Having never hired a domestic employee before, unless you count the kid from A&M who cut our grass every other week, we were fairly clueless about the whole process. I called a few of the nanny agencies listed in the phone book and settled on one that a friend of a friend had some sort of a satisfactory experience with. We paid a retainer fee, filled out forms, answered questions, and met one night with half a dozen girls that the agency had screened for us. Some were dumber than dumb, one was a perfect British nanny who wanted a health plan and a salary that was bigger than mine, but one young lady, whom I’ll call Amanda, seemed to fit the bill-eager, friendly, cute, and fun. We invited her to our house for another interview.
During that next 30-minute interview, Amanda seemed like a good candidate. She played with Jack, smiled a lot, and talked about how much fun she had with her church group. Great, and what church is that, I asked, more out of a desire to keep the conversation rolling than because I really cared.
Worldwide Church of God, said she.
Uh, oh, thought I.
I called one of my minister friends who confirmed my fears. Amanda was in what is widely perceived to be a cult.
I called the nanny agency back and let them know that, to put it mildly, I wasn’t Happy. Much later, the nanny I did hire told me that because of this incident, the agency had warned her that I was a “difficult” client.
So went my first dive into the somewhat murky waters of the Dallas nanny business, an industry that despite high demand for its product, the nannies, lies stagnant in a sea of unprofessionalism. Nanny a-gency owners accuse each other of substandard operations and procedures. Parents detail their nightmare experiences with nannies and with agencies. While much of what goes on is just bad business, some of it is simply illegal. It seems everyone has a horror story, and they all wanted to tell it to me-on the condition, of course, that I did not use their names.
Finding a good nanny in Dallas, Texas, is, of course, possible. But to do it right, you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and get ready to work.
MANY PEOPLE BEGIN THEIR search for a nanny with an agency. The dozen or so agencies in town tout all sorts of screening services, Expect reputable agencies to check driver’s license records, criminal conviction records, and prior-employment records. Many will also administer personality and health tests, including one for drug use. They’ll also screen potential nannies through personal interviews. In exchange, you can expect to pay a placement fee in the $ 1,000 to $ 1,500 range should you find a nanny.
This may seem reasonable. Almost any parent I know will gladly empty his or her wallet if it means getting a reliable baby sitter. Bat it’s important to understand what you’re really getting for your money.
Take the criminal background check. In all likelihood, the agency may check only Texas counties’-or worse, only Dallas County’s-criminal convictions. If the nanny has moved here from Louisiana, where she spent three months in a swampy cell, it won’t show up in the search.
Don’t expect them to dig too deep. They might verify the employment history that the nanny has listed, but they won’t look for those worrisome gaps in employment history. One acquaintance tells of a nanny she hired who had one of those gaps; it turned out the nanny had spent those years as a dancer in a gentlemen’s club. Another mom says an agency checked with all her nanny’s past employers and found no problems or complaints. A few weeks after the mom hired the nanny, she got into a conflict over the terms of payment. She called the former employer herself this time to see if this was a pattern and learned that it was. In fact, it had led to the nanny’s dismissal.
Remember that potential nannies are in the market for a job. When they interview with agencies, they may tell them what they want to hear. And agencies may take the nannies at face value. Looking through the application forms of one of my former nannies, I saw that the agency representative noted that the nanny “likes housekeeping and loves to cook.” While that nanny turned out to be a good one in other respects, in the 18 months she was with us, I do not remember her cooking a meal that wasn’t microwavable. And when she began working for us, she confessed that she hated housekeeping.
Jill Reaves of Dallas’ Worldwide Nannies and Domestics agency notes that while she checks references for nannies, she also encourages clients to do the research for themselves because they may have different questions that they want to ask. Nevertheless, she says, “there aren’t very many [clients] that are checking references” because they don’t have time.
Arlene Steinfield, a labor and employment attorney with Thompson and Knight, makes the time when she’s looking for a nanny. Steinfield, who recently finished her third nanny search in three years, says she searches “only through agencies” but cautions that “you use the agency only as an initial screening tool. Do not rely on them for referencing. That is your responsibility as a parent.”
Steinfield, who admits mat as a litigator she can be “fairly compulsive and obsessive,” says that she approaches the referencing and interviewing process as if she were doing discovery for a case. She gives exhaustive interviews to both nannies and past employers and cross-references the results of the two to make sure they match completely. Her best advice comes out of her courtroom practices: When checking past references, she asks “Is there anything else I should know?” And she keeps coming back to that question. While Steinfield declined to discuss the kinds of specific information she has learned through this process, she did say that on the third repetition of this question, the truth begins to emerge. And it’s often what you didn’t want to hear.
Taking candidates at face value is bad news, but agency owners allude to even more egregious practices in the industry. “There’s a lot of bad things that happen in nanny agencies,” says Mary Cory of The Nanny Connection. “Check on the reputation of the agencies, on their references. I don’t know the last time I’ve been asked to fax references to a client.”
Another agency owner, who told me this story on the condition that I would not identify her, said chat she knew of agencies that didn’t screen their clients or their nannies personally. They simply got phone calls from each and set up appointment times for the nannies to meet the clients. One nanny was sent to a home to meet a couple for the first time, They certainly were expecting her. They tied her up and raped her.
Dishonorable practices may be what you can expect from an industry that is largely unregulated and ripe for abuse. There is no state governing board that specifically regulates nanny agencies. It is possible to check records of complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau or with the consumer protection division of the state attorney general’s office. But they won’t be able to tell you if an agency is good or bad, only if complaints have been registered against it.
To try to learn more about an agency, you can also call the state department of licensing and regulation in Austin to see if the agency is licensed and bonded as a personnel employment service. What this means is that the agency has paid an initial licensing fee of $100, pays annual renewal fees of $50, and is bonded for $5,000. What this doesn’t mean is that if the agency goes out of business and you had some sort of nanny replacement guarantee, you’ll get your money back.
And here’s another problem: Nanny agencies, because they receive their money from potential employers and not from the nannies for whom they find work, fall under an exception to the personnel services act which is supposed to regulate them, and the agencies are exempt from registration. So the people in Austin may not even know the agency you’re looking at exists, no one is requiring that agency to be licensed, and it’s all perfectly legal. If I so desired, I could place an ad in the paper today, call myself a nanny agency, and start acting as a broker between nannies and potential employers whom the law does not require me to meet. I called Austin and asked a representative from the division of policy and standards at the department of licensing if he believed the nanny agency business is well regulated. Reluctantly, and on the condition of anonymity, he admitted, “I guess not.”
Carol Jones, owner of Elite Alternatives agency, used to work for an investigative agency and offers this advice for those on the great nanny agency hunt: Be wary of companies that change their name or have frequent turnovers in staff. Dana Marzetz of Park Cities Domestics also warns parents to look out for agencies that offer lifetime guarantees for nanny replacement: “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
WHILE THE PROBLEMS WITH NANNY AGENcies may make finding a good nanny difficult, the aura of unprofessionalism in this business may stem from the pool of available nannies themselves.
Despite a high demand for nannies in the Dallas area, experts and parents who have been through the process say the number of quality nannies is limited, “Client demand is much stronger than ability to find professional nannies,” Mary Cory of The Nanny Connection agency explains. Cory suggests families in search of a nanny sign up with two or three agencies at once because of the scarcity of nannies. She also says to allow at least one month for the search.
One mother of four who moved here recently from New York echoes Cory’s observation. She interviewed about 20 nannies through several different agencies but was not impressed with the caliber of candidates. “Availability here is pathetic,” she notes. So pathetic, in fact, that this mother found her new nanny through a London agency that makes a once-a-year trip to New York. “They charged a monumental fee,” says the mother, “but I was desperate.”
Many Dallas agency owners describe the nannies on their rosters as women in their early 20s who are in school or temporarily out of school, and who will go on to other careers. While many have taken some classes in child care, and while many are eager and enthusiastic, they don’t see the nanny business as a lifetime profession. Jeff Jones, a client representative of Elite Alternatives, points to the transient nature of the nanny community: “Most give a year to a year and hall commitment. If you get two to two and a half years, you’ve done well.”
Some families’ bad luck with nannies runs to the extreme: One Piano woman tells me she has had 14 nannies in the past eight years-and that’s not counting the one and a half years she “gave up” and put her children in day care. This mom says she’s had nannies of “every nationality and age” and disasters of every shape and form. Her first Swedish au pair never made it to Texas because of visa problems. One nanny worked for two weeks, took home a king size bed that the family had in the garage, and then sent a telegram saying the job was “too restricting. ” One young Polish nanny, the mom says, “met some guy” and started spending more and more time with him. One night she went out with him and never came back, An 80-year-old Polish woman, who couldn’t speak English and couldn’t cook, returned to her homeland after a year.
“At one point,” says the mother, “we hired the mother of a professional sports player in Dallas. The first Friday we had her, I came home early. She was feeding the kids week-old Tony Roma onion rings at four in the afternoon for their dinner. So we let her go. ” One nanny forgot to pick up one of the children from summer school. He was found by another Piano mom who called the child’s father to let him know what was going on. The nanny arrived at the school shortly thereafter, but that night she didn’t tell the father what had happened, He let her go. “These are people who are almost unemployable in other jobs,” sums up the exasperated mother. “They don’t have any kinds of skills or extended education.”
WHILE PARENTS REMAIN FRUSTRATED with a business that doesn’t seem to respond to their needs, part of the blame for problems with the nanny industry may lie with parents who say they expect their nannies to act like professionals but aren’t willing to treat them as such. One agency owner estimares that 80 percent other clients pay their nannies under the table to avoid paying taxes. Catherine Hall of Hallmark Domestic Services says families “try to get by paying a nanny $5 or $6 an hour-people are willing to pay almost double that per hour for just a baby sitter.” And no employers interviewed for this story offered their nannies medical insurance.
So goes the Catch-22 that keeps the nanny industry wallowing in mediocrity. Improving the situation, it seems, calls for a three-fold response: Agencies will need to upgrade their practices; nannies will need to boost their credentials; and parents will need to be willing to pay for what they’ll get. One positive sign on the horizon is the planned opening of Dallas’ first professional nanny school. Jill Reaves of Worldwide Nannies says she hopes to open the school, which would provide six weeks of child-care training, next year.
And if the industry doesn’t improve? One mother predicts a sea change in the response of mothers who will leave their jobs or cut back to part time. “It’s not the ’80s anymore. We don’t need all this stuff [that we get from an additional income]. We can go without it. The price is just too high.”
HIRING A NANNY: WHAT TO EXPECT
Our semi-scientific survey of Dallas area nannies yielded the following information about the local nanny market.
Average hours per week a nanny works: 50-55 (though several moms were reluctant to provide specific details because they don’t pay overtime and were worried about the legal ramifications)
Average length of time a nanny stays with a family: 1 to 1 1/2 years
Salaries: $280-$375/week. One woman also pays expenses, including 28 cents a mile and part of the nanny’s mobile phone bill, which she says add up to at least $100 a month. One mother, whose nanny was paid at the high end of the scale, admits that “I live with the fear that someone will offer her more.” Agencies that deal with clients in the Park Cities say the average is higher there: $400-$500/week.
Vacation policies: two weeks with pay is standard; some employers wait until the nanny finishes her first year.
Nanny duties: child care is the first priority; other duties may include driving the child to activities, running errands, light housekeeping, cooking dinner for die family, grocery shopping, and doing the children’s laundry.
Bonus: about one week s pay at Christmastime.
Medical insurance: no one we spoke with offered it.
What parents do when the nanny calls in sick: take the child to a neighbor’s or a relatives house. “Have a nervous breakdown.” -C.N.