As a caregiver, Nicolette Setola seems like a catch. She has worked as a nanny for 17 years, trained as a personal chef and taken classes in positive discipline. Perhaps most impressive is that she’s comfortable walking a toddler through the process of scrambling eggs.
“At 2, they can crack an egg,” Setola said. “A lot of parents don’t realize that they can make their own eggs, as long as you’re there to supervise them and be safe.”
Setola lives in Charleston, South Carolina, and is looking for work. One thing that’s kept her from getting some jobs, though, is her good health. Setola hasn’t had the coronavirus, and several families told her they’re only looking for someone who’s already been sick.
“I wasn’t surprised. I’ve been talking to other nannies and they’re getting asked the same thing,” Setola said. “It’s a little disheartening because sometimes you’re like, ‘Oh, I have great vibe,’ and then that’s the determining fact, that you do not get to have the position.”
In Brooklyn, New York, nanny Anna Garcia was sick with COVID-19 in March. She’s healthy now and saw a job posting in a parents group on Facebook looking for a caregiver who’d already had the virus. Garcia applied, but said it felt strange to talk about being a coronavirus survivor with her potential boss.
“It’s just all these weird questions,” Garcia said. “It’s no longer as before, where they were more focused on how many years you’ve been working, do you have references, calling them. Now, it’s if you’re sick, if you have been sick, and how long have you been symptom-free.”
Scientists still don’t know how much protection COVID-19 antibodies provide. But as the pandemic drags on, and more parents turn to nannies to help with child care, they are grasping onto anything they believe could keep their families safe. That includes having their caregivers move in, asking them to wear masks and screening candidates for whether they’ve had the virus.
“Their hope is that, maybe if this nanny has had it before, she won’t get it again, and we won’t be exposed to it,” said Katie Provinziano, who runs the nationwide placement agency Westside Nannies.
Provinziano doesn’t screen candidates based on whether they’ve had the virus. But there’s very little regulation of families who hire caregivers on their own. The Americans with Disabilities Act prevents employers from asking workers to take an antibody test. But that law only applies to households when they have 15 or more people on staff.
“It’s really incredibly minuscule as a category, the number of households that employ that many,” said Samuel Bagenstos, a professor of labor and employment law at the University of Michigan. “You basically have to be in ‘Great Gatsby’ territory.”
Many older labor laws created in the 1930s intentionally left out domestic workers, who are mainly women of color. A bill introduced in Congress last year would create new anti-discrimination protections for domestic workers. But Bagenstos worries that if families favor caregivers who’ve already had the virus, nannies might deliberately try to become sick.
“People are going to be put in this sort of deadly dilemma,” Bagenstos said. “Do I infect myself in order to work? Or do I protect my life at the expense of my livelihood?”
There are historical precedents for this kind of behavior. Yellow fever was a huge problem in the 1800s in Southern cities like New Orleans. There was no treatment for it, and people who hadn’t had the disease had a harder time getting jobs and housing. Yellow fever is transmitted only through mosquitoes, but people didn’t know that at the time and would attempt different things to become ill.
“I’ve seen examples of people jumping into the beds of their dead friends, rolling around in their bedsheets, hoping to get sick,” said Kathryn Olivarius, a professor of history at Stanford, who’s researched that period.
There are other new requirements, besides antibodies. Several nanny agencies said they’ve seen requests for live-in caregivers more than triple since the start of the pandemic. Shenandoah Davis, who runs the nationwide placement firm Adventure Nannies, said the number of live-in requests has increased from fewer than 10% to around 50% of all inquiries.
Setola, the nanny in South Carolina, turned down a live-in position to care for a girl who was born with a lung condition. The family didn’t want her to leave the property.
“To be asked to kind of give up your own life is — it’s a lot. It’s a lot for any nanny,” Setola said. “Some people are just not at that point in their life where they can just say, OK, well, I guess this year I won’t be able to see my family.”
Setola’s also had several families ask her to wear a mask throughout the day. “It’s really hard, especially when you’re teaching a child to talk or communicate,” she said. “They can’t see your lips. They hear sounds, but it’s also not the exact sound.”
While families are asking more of their caregivers, many nannies feel like they have less negotiating power. Ashley Hurd was working as a nanny in Brooklyn when New York City’s stay-at-home order went into effect. Her employers continued to socialize with neighbors, and Hurd was worried they might become sick and then infect her. She wasn’t comfortable going into work, so she asked to stay home. After a few weeks, the family found child care elsewhere, leaving her out of a job.
“They knew how I felt about everything because we talked about the entire situation a lot. But they still did what they wanted,” Hurd said. “It’s not safe. But, you know, I can’t tell my employers what to do.”
Even if nannies get jobs they feel comfortable in, there’s the issue of pay. Some families have never hired nannies before and may not know how much it costs. Others might just be trying to get a deal.
Anna Garcia, the nanny in Brooklyn, has 10 years of experience, and before the pandemic, she was making $22 an hour to watch two kids. Recently, she’s been offered much less.
“I feel like a lot of families are taking advantage of the pandemic,” Garcia said. “A lot of nannies, including myself, are being offered $14, $15 an hour for two kids. That’s — no.”
Garcia hasn’t been able to get a full-time job since she was sick. She said she’s willing to answer personal questions about her health, and the fact that she had the virus, in order to get work. But she draws the line at taking a pay cut.
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