'My Silence Makes Her Invisible': Parents Must Fight for Nannies and Domestic Workers

Parents have the power to change the course of history by making their own homes a fair workplace for nannies—and by calling out lawmakers.

Vintage photo of a woman holding the hands of two children
(Image credit: Future)

When my son Jake gets out of school, he runs to Lupe, hugs her, and tells her about Minecraft. My daughter Lilly jumps up and down while Lupe makes sure she has her backpack and water bottle. When they get to our house, Lupe fixes snacks, shows Lilly how to make a rainbow with balls of tissue paper, and helps Jake with his homework. If it takes a village to raise children, then for three hours a day, five days a week, Lupe is at the center of mine.

I'm the employer of a nanny, and it feels weird to say it. I can still hear my aunts gossiping about a neighbor. "I can't believe she'd pay someone to raise her children for her," they'd say. I've heard other parents give lavish credit to grandparents for watching the kids, praise helpful older siblings, and thank friends for pitching in, but the vital daily work nannies do never seems to come up. I worry what everyone else will think of me if I speak up alone, while my silence makes Lupe invisible.

There are more than 2.2 million workers employed in private homes nationwide. Nearly all are women, and half are women of color. If we as working parents continue to prioritize our feelings over the truth, we're part of a system that perpetuates racism and sexism, with real consequences. In the 1930s, Southern lawmakers cut domestic workers out of federal labor laws because a majority of them were African-American, leaving the rights and workplace standards of domestic workers unprotected.

Fast forward to the present—headlines are buzzing about the “child care cliff,” where billions in emergency funding allocated for childcare providers during the pandemic will expire. This is expected to shut down more than 70,000 daycares and preschool centers and leave 3.3 million young kids without care. Last week, Congress voted not to extend this funding, and I’m not surprised given who is in power. What will it take for our country to prioritize caregivers (at care centers and at home)?

I'm a member of Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network, a national organization of employers who advocate alongside domestic workers for policy change. Thanks to its relentless work with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, ten states, two major cities, and the District of Columbia have passed legislation providing basic rights to domestic workers. Now we're working to win a Domestic Worker Bill of Rights nationally.

By "basic rights," I mean basic: You and your nanny must have a written agreement that covers wages, sick leave, and benefits. You can't discriminate against them. Your nanny can request (and be granted) changes to their schedule due to personal events. You have to provide some paid sick leave. You have to actually notify them that they have those rights.

This is an industry that was shaped by slavery; exploitation has always been part of its history.

Reha Sterbin

Before I joined Hand in Hand, I didn't realize how common it was for them to work alone in the house of an employer who thought nothing of denying them all of those rights. This is an industry that was shaped by slavery; exploitation has always been part of its history. The nature of the work–in the home, often alone–makes abuses like wage theft, discrimination, and harassment easy to hide. There has to be a legal incentive and real consequences.

The truth is that providing basic rights and protections also benefits the employers–it gives us clear guidelines, instead of relying on word of mouth or arbitrary rules. It takes a lot of the guessing game out of hiring. It leads to better working relationships (not to mention better quality of care and less turnover).

Case in point: me.

I'm a software engineer and a consultant. It's a male-dominated field, and I was terrified that while on maternity leave I'd lose my most interesting clients and return to nothing but grunt work. I needed a nanny before returning to work but didn't know where to start. I called my friend, Tam, who's a nanny, who explained what kinds of tasks were normal and what kinds of hourly rates were fair. And she said, "Offer the kind of job you'd be willing to take because caring for your kids should be a good job."

I found a blank sample contract online, and I sat down with my own employee handbook and copied over the same holidays, sick leave policy, and vacation days. I couldn't afford to provide a healthcare plan, and I got lost trying to figure out taxes, so I signed up with Care.com’s HomePay, which does all the "on the books" work for you. Through them, I learned that I'd need insurance policies for disability and worker's compensation. That doesn't just guarantee a better job for my nanny, it also protects me–I'm not going to get a surprise tax bill, and the insurance pays for longer term leave so I can still afford alternate child care.

This foundation helped me build a great relationship with Michelle, the nanny who supported me through the transition back to work and the rest of my son's first year; with Lital, who did the same for my daughter a few years later—and now with Lupe, who cares for both of them after school. These women have been my partners in navigating the hardest parts of parenting, whether that's sleep transitions, or figuring out how to help my neurodivergent kids handle distance learning.

The work of raising children is physically demanding and exhilarating. It requires tremendous patience and creativity, intelligence, and intuition. It's a bit like programming, although admittedly I've never had a misbehaving algorithm vomit on my shirt. In any job I might take as a developer, I can take for granted that I'll have a written employment contract, that it will include sick leave, and that I'll be legally protected from discrimination and harassment. That should come standard for nannies, too.

Domestic workers—along with farm workers—were written out of our country’s foundational labor laws as a concession to white Southern lawmakers who wanted to continue to exploit an overwhelmingly Black workforce. And because domestic work has for centuries been framed as the "natural" responsibility of women, our society has failed to recognize it as the difficult and vital work it is.

In a congressional hearing last year, some Republican lawmakers tried to argued that giving nannies, house cleaners, and home attendants basic rights would be too burdensome for employers. I'm insulted–it's not a burden for me to treat my nannies with the same respect I expect for myself.

Lack of standards has real ramifications. According to the Economic Policy Institute, domestic workers are three times as likely to live in poverty than other workers–typical wages for a domestic worker were $12.02/hour; for a non-domestic worker, $19.97. And 39 percent of nannies live twice below the poverty level; for non-domestic workers, the twice-poverty rate is 17 percent.

Nevermind holidays and paid-time off. In 2011, a survey of NDWA members found that 82 percent of domestic workers were not entitled to a single paid sick day. By 2021, eighteen states had some form of paid sick leave policy, but not all covered domestic workers.

If your village includes a nanny, stand with them by making your own home a fairer workplace, speaking up to your friends and neighbors, and calling your legislators. Tell them to stop allowing the lazy acceptance of historical exploitation to decide what protections apply to domestic workers. Tell them that you don't want the freedom to exploit the person you trust with your children and that by expecting you to be a fair employer, they're showing you respect. And tell them to listen to nannies, too.


Reha is a member of Hand in Hand: The Domestic Employers Network. She is also a software engineer and mother of two.