Securing safe and loving childcare is one of the most complex jobs a parent can face. The choice of how your child will spend the day when you cannot be there is a personal one that must be tailored to the individual needs of each family. With so many options available, the task can seem daunting. According to our reader survey at Parentsknow.com, only slightly more than half of our respondents are very satisfied with their childcare provider and 15 percent are not satisfied at all (see accompanying box). With these unsettling figures in mind, we consulted experts in the field as well as parents with first-hand accounts, and have compiled a comprehensive guide to everything you need to know about finding loving and affordable childcare in NYC:
New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) provides comprehensive information for a full range of childcare services — from locating a daycare program, to obtaining public records on childcare providers, and more. You can also search their website for registered daycare centers; listings include contact information, licensing, and breakdown of the ages of children currently enrolled. www.ocfs.state.ny.us; (518) 473-7793.
New York City mom Lisa Merriam says that a nanny is not merely a household worker, but more a part of the family. "I feel as if I’ve hired a permanent new member of the family," says Merriam. "If that isn’t the situation for others, I suggest they look harder to find a person with the right fit. They should examine their interaction with their nannies to see if they are doing everything possible to make the relationship equitable, respectful and loving. My child is my treasure and her heart, mind and soul are to be placed always in the most loving, nurturing hands possible."
FINDING A GREAT NANNY
"Begin by understanding your family’s needs," says Carol Solomon, owner of the New York Nanny Center. Think about live-in vs. live-out nannies and part-time vs. full-time, as well as the child’s needs. "Do you need someone who can go out and play ball or ride a bicycle?" she asks. Sylvia Basdeo, president of Best Choice Domestics (BCD), which serves Manhattan as well as the other boroughs, says, "A great nanny is defined as someone who truly loves working with children, someone who will not only give them TLC, but will take the initiative to help them learn colors, shapes, numbers, ABCs and help with homework — someone who will be proactive." Start with an agency that claims: ‘If I would not hire this person for my home, I would not send them to yours.’ Make sure they have reasonable fees, a guarantee policy, and an extensive screening process that includes reference checks. And remember to ask around. "Satisfied customers always spread the word," says Basdeo. Another way to find a good nanny is through word of mouth. Jean*, NYC mom of two, found her nanny that way. “My friend recommended her to me and I had met her previously on outings. So I felt very comfortable”. Since moving, however, Jean is now looking for another nanny. “It has been a very difficult experience to find good and affordable childcare in Manhattan. I should have first gone to other moms who could refer me from their own experience.” Keep in mind, however that a friend who really loves her nanny will not want to give her up. But people move and toddlers grow up and go to school, and sometimes a nanny who works part-time may want to take on additional hours, so it never hurts to ask. Parents may post notices in a preschool when their nanny is looking for an extra job. Be sure to speak to the director of the school about who is allowed to place notices, to be assured that not just anyone can walk in and put up a sign. A final way is through message boards on the Internet. Our website, www.nymetroparents.com, has frequent listings of parents whose nannies are looking for another job. Make sure to check and double-check references!
This is one of the most important stages of securing childcare. Parents must ask questions to make sure that the person who will be in charge of their child on a daily basis is someone who is of good character, as well as mentally and emotionally stable. Kathleen Webb, managing partner of 4nannies.com, suggests avoiding yes and no questions. "Ask lots of open-ended questions," she says. "Instead of ‘How many years of experience have you had?’, try ‘Tell me a little about your experience.’" Carol Solomon of New York Nanny Center recommends asking about the nanny’s family background, how she was raised, and if she’d raise her children the same way. Reference checks are an absolute must and can done through agencies. Websites such as 4nannies.com can also help you order reference checks, and criminal record checks as well. Solomon says of her agency: "We use a check and balance system to make sure that the reference dates and ages coincide with the dates and ages the applicant has given us. We emphasize that this is a childcare position and that we need the person to be as open with us as they possibly can be."
A nanny is expected to take care of the children and their needs. This includes cooking for the child, cleaning up afterwards, doing children’s laundry, and straightening the child’s mess in bedroom or play areas. Nannies should not have to clean up the entire house or do anything that does not directly involve the child. Preparing or cooking for guests, making dinner for the entire family, or washing windows is off limits for a nanny and is work that should be performed by a maid. Of course, there are times when a parent needs extra help and a nanny may be willing to pitch in. A parent can ask for extra help and a nanny has the right to accept or decline. If the nanny chooses to take on other duties, she should be properly compensated.
The International Nanny Association reports the following in their Nanny and Salary Benefits Survey 2003-2004: —Live-ins in the New York City area work an average of 55 hours a week and make about $660 a week with a range of $250-$1000. —Live-outs work, on average, 48 hours a week, and make $777 with a salary range of $500-$1600. Individual rates vary greatly, depending on the parents’ incomes and additional duties or overtime. “Ten dollars is par for the course these days and that is where I start,” says Lisa Merriam. “I then work with the nanny over time, and base pay on how well they are doing.”
NANNY TAXES/HIRING ILLEGALLY
If you employ a nanny in your home and pay at least $1,400 in any given year, you must submit payroll tax filings. Both you and your nanny will be expected to pay a portion of the tax. Payments differ according to each situation, but may include social security, Medicare, and unemployment tax. You must get your nanny’s social security number and report it with your taxes. If you do not, you will be held responsible tax-wise. In addition, the IRS will begin placing fines for misinformation, such as incorrect Social Security numbers or names and numbers that do not match. You must also make sure that your nanny is legally able to work in the United States by completing the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Form I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification, and providing the necessary identity documents listed on the form. 4Nannytaxes.com, a division of Homework Solutions, is a tax service that offers advice and information on nanny taxes, and will guide you through the long process. Other sites are: www.nannytaxprep.com, www.nannypay.com, and www.paycycle.com.
HIRING A NANNY WHOSE FIRST LANGUAGE IS NOT YOUR OWN
Kathleen Webb of Homework Solutions says, "Families generally fall into two groups on this: the ones who want their child's caregiver to model correct, grammatical spoken English, particularly in the language acquisition years: and those with an appreciation of exposing their young child to a second language." Parents should, however, ensure that the nanny is proficient enough in the English language for communication, particularly in an emergency situation. They should be able to speak with medical professionals or a 911 operator.
As in most other jobs, typical vacation time is two weeks a year. Often the parents will choose one week, and the nanny will be able to pick one week. Working on public holidays is flexible duty, but make sure both parties agree to whatever arrangement is planned. Webb says, "Payment for public holidays is an item that should be addressed in a written work agreement before the nanny starts working. Failure to agree on this upfront often leads to conflict with the nanny, and has been known to send an otherwise happy nanny packing." Most agencies agree that more often than not, families pay for major federal holidays for a full-time nanny.
Since providing health insurance is not mandatory, this is a personal choice to be made between nanny and parents. Generally, when parents pay health insurance, it is as a bonus for superior work. Sometimes a nanny will already be provided for through her husband’s insurance and would prefer a higher hourly rate instead.
Paying for sick days are again a personal choice between nanny and parents. However, a valuable piece of advice from Webb is to consider some type of sick day benefit "because some nannies, needing their full paycheck, will come to work ill and then you find your children sick, too." Lisa Merriam says sick days are negotiable. "With a really good nanny, I don’t mind if she gets sick occasionally, and so I pay her," she says. As with all business contracts, it is important to establish a plan for negotiable items like sick days. Once a personal relationship is formed between parents and nanny, it is much harder to maintain a business relationship. You must remember that although your nanny may be a household member, she is still an employee and you must give her the same expectations and guidelines that you would any member of any staff, in the home or workplace. This is to everyone’s advantage; a nanny who is being treated like a professional will be a happier nanny.
Raises are usually left up to what parents can afford, but on average, $25 to $50 extra per week after a year is considered typical. Of course, if another child is born into the family or if duties or hours are added, then the salary must reflect that. Beth Lehmann, a Manhattan professional childcare provider, says that raises are usually up to the discretion of the employer. "I personally have received anywhere from one week to one month’s pay as a year-end bonus. On average, I believe it is about two weeks salary for nannies," says Lehmann.
Nannies often are able to take advantage of many job perks. According to Sylvia Basdeo at BCD, whether families pay for carfare is dependent on whether the nanny "is required to take Metro North, LIRR, or NJ Transit, since all of these cost more than a train or bus ride." Larger perks include use of employer’s car, family club membership, and private cell phone. Often, free travel and meals are part of the package.
In recent years, nanny surveillance has played a large part in confirming suspected mistreatment of young children; many parents are looking into technology as a result. Craig Erkus, president of Nanny Check, a company that sells video surveillance equipment, says that the newest technology involves covert digital surveillance — enabling parents to view the contents of their cameras over the Internet and to store the video on a hard drive instead of VHS tapes. Some of the latest advances include DVRs (digital video recorders). The new technology can be expensive, however. Steven Finkelstein, owner and safety manager of HomeStep (www.HomeStepSafety.com), a company that provides video surveillance, nanny cam consultations and equipment, says that "a basic VCR-based surveillance system can cost $300 and up, while an Internet-based system can cost $2,000-$3000 or more." When should parents use surveillance equipment? "Whenever they have any caregiver in their home," says Erkus, who used a nanny cam with his first child. Ideally, Finkelstein recommends installing it before the caregiver begins working, so that you will become accustomed to using the equipment. "The comfort level with the process and equipment is critical; caregivers can read the behaviors of parents nervous over the use of the surveillance system, or erratic and obvious placement of cameras," he adds. There’s no need for parents to feel as if they are doing anything wrong or illegal. "It is fully legal to tape your nanny in New York without consent," explains Erkus. "New York State has a one party consent law, which allows parents to videotape their children and daycare provider without the caregiver’s consent. We are all taped every day — in banks, gas stations and stores."
WHEN TO FIRE YOUR NANNY
No one likes to fire their nanny but when things are not working out for you or your child, there is no other solution. If your nanny was hired through an agency, call to check what their replacement policies are; some will offer unlimited replacement, while others offer limited replacement or none at all. Best Choice Domestics offers a one-time replacement. "I give a two-month replacement guarantee and a one-week trial in the home. So if the client is not happy with their choice or the applicant leaves on their own accord within the first two months, the client is entitled to one free replacement," explains Basdeo. When breaking the news to your nanny, try to have your partner with you for support. Firing your nanny is not like firing an employee at the office; parents also worry about disrupting their child’s life. Many business people who have no trouble executing necessary leadership skills at work may become weak-willed in home situations; retaining a business-like attitude from beginning to end is necessary. Kathleen Webb of Homework Solutions advises, "Be prepared to finalize any paperwork immediately, including payment for wages owed, vacation time accrued, and severance if applicable". Remember that if you have any significant doubts about your nanny, you should choose the safety of your child above all else. You cannot have a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to the well-being of your child. Trust your instincts, and if you have a doubt, act on it. And it goes without saying: Line up your replacement nanny before you fire the current one.