Domestic downsizing

As the financial crisis hits home, nannies and housekeepers are getting the boot.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
December 12, 2008 4:50AM (UTC)
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The financial crisis is hitting home (literally) and forcing some dual-career, middle- and upper-class couples to act like prudent CEOs and cut back on household operating costs. The sink piled with dishes, that overflowing hamper of dirty clothes and their brood of rambunctious kids? They are now their sole responsibility -- because the nanny and the maid are being laid off.

"The luxury of household help, often in the form of immigrant labor, blossomed" during healthier financial times, writes Miriam Jordon in the Wall Street Journal. But, "the dive in the value of stock portfolios and real estate has caused even prosperous families to review their finances" and dispense of the luxury of coming home after a long day's work to a clean and orderly house, or having someone to entertain the kids a couple days a week. For example, Dolores Jacobo, the soon-to-be-cut "megananny" for a beachfront household in Malibu, Calif., was told by her employers that "they had to cut expenses 75 percent."


Jordon reports: "Waiting rooms at agencies in Los Angeles, Chicago and Seattle are packed with these foreign workers, but prospective employers are in short supply. Financially pinched families are scaling back nanny hours, seeking 'nanny shares' or reluctantly adding their children's names to waiting lists at day care centers." Domestic placement agencies report a drop in business ranging from 10 to 30 percent, and Annie Davis, CEO of Annie's Nannies Household Staffing, predicts, "It's going to get worse."

While it might be tempting to roll your eyes at the tragedy of people having to start mowing their own lawns, there is no denying the devastating impact the drying up of domestic jobs has on workers. The New York Times' Julie Scelfo also reports on the increase in household cuts, and reports that there is a whole lot at stake "for workers -- particularly those who are being paid off the books and have little or no legal protection or financial buffer." Cathy DeVore, a real estate agent in New York, is gradually cutting back the hours of  her Dominican nanny and housekeeper, and tells the Times: “My selling less houses is going to affect her mother living in her hut in Dominica, which is crazy. But her mother is going to get less sugar because she has less money to send home."  Ai-jen Poo, founder of Domestic Workers United, tells the Times that "essentially 10,000 jobs lost at Lehman Brothers means 10,000 domestic workers’ jobs that are in jeopardy."

Scelfo points out that the unique intimacy of these working relationships can make the cutbacks especially wrenching on both sides: "For employers, who form attachments to the people they entrust with their children and their homes, terminating or even scaling back the relationship can feel like betraying a family member." Some employers are going as far as posting ads on Craiglist and other popular message boards, hoping to (against all odds, frankly) get their employees a new position before laying them off.


Of course, there are also employers like stay-at-home mother Suzanne Sirof of Los Angeles, who recently laid off her nanny, whom she calls a "second mom" to her kids.  She told the WSJ that she feels "horrible" about having to give the boot to her nanny -- an El Salvadoran immigrant who says she can no longer afford to put shoes on her kids' feet -- but added, "Nothing deters me from my Botox treatments."

Tracy Clark-Flory

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