In our last post on “illegals,” we looked at the odd refusal, by the press, to call the capitalist employers of illegal migrants “illegals.” Today, I want to work out a similar kink in the discourse by looking at the nannies who are employed by the professional class on up (that is, by the 0.1% and the 9.9%). The supply chain and labor market for migrants, illegal or not, is insanely complicated, and so I’m only going to look at nannies, and not at yard men, construction workers, restaurant workers, factory workers, etc. The complexity also makes solid numbers hard to come by. But there are generalizations that we can make, as we shall see. After making those generalizations, we’ll conclude with some telling anecdotes.
“Nannies” were first weaponized in political discourse during the Clinton administration (as retrospectively we might expect, since Clinton represented and embodied the then fresh ascendancy of the professional classes (the 9.9%) in the Democrat Party). “NannyGate” derailed Clinton’s nominations of corporate lawyer Zoë Baird and Federal Judge Kimba Wood for Attorney General, Baird because she employed an illegal migrant after it was illegal to employ them and didn’t pay the nanny’s taxes, Wood because she employed an illegal migrant even though when she did it was legal to do so. “The Nannygate matter caused wealthy Americans to ask each other if they too had a ‘Zoë Baird problem’, as the hiring of illegal aliens and the paying of household help off the books were both commonplace.” And so — speculating freely — we have solved that potential optics problem with the ubiquituous nanny brokers (“agencies”) of today, chat boards that
share tips for explain the risks of hiring nannies, all of which are filled with “I don’t, but I have heard that others do” comments.
As far as the class angle goes, the median hourly wage for all nannies in the United States is $14.59 an hour (in New York, $17.63). The median hourly wage (pause for toothgrinding calculation) for all occupations is $18.12. Taking income as a proxy for class, and assuming that being a nanny is a full time job, it seems reasonable to conclude that the working class (the 90%) isn’t hiring nannies (except perhaps for labor aristocrats). That means that the labor market for nannies is made by the 9.9% and the 0.1%; they are the ones doing the hiring.
So let’s take a look at that labor market. It would not be fair to say that all, or even most, nannies are illegal migrants. (The illegality comes in at another angle, which I’ll get to.) From GTM Payroll Services in 2015, and taking “maids and housekeepers” as a proxy for nannies:
According to a Pew Research Center study published last year, there were 8.1 million unauthorized immigrants either working or looking for work in 2012. The study also shows that the largest number of unauthorized immigrant workers are found in service occupations, which include maids, cooks, or groundskeepers. In fact, maids and housekeepers account for 25% of undocumented workers within those occupations. These employees make up a critical part of our economy.
We have no numbers for nannies hired illegally by the 0.1%, but we do have telling anecdotes, as of this from Hollywood actress and producer Amber Heard. (The median yearly salary for a Hollywood produder is “just $66,121.”) From TMZ:
The actress took to Twitter just after midnight on Tuesday and said, “Just heard there’s an ICE checkpoint in [H]ollywood, a few blocks from where I live. better give their housekeepers, nannies and landscapers a ride home tonight.”
There are approximately 2 million domestic workers in the United States today. They often work for wealthy families, including international businesspeople and diplomats, cleaning their houses and caring for their loved ones. Trafficking is a common reality. In 2016 domestic work represented the largest sector of all labor traffcking cases reported to the National Human Traffcking Resource Center. Often domestic workers who are traffcked are trapped, their passports confscated, their jobs contracts are violated, they are forced to work long hours for little pay, their movements restricted and monitored, they are threatened with arrest and deportation if
they try to escape, and treated without dignity or respect.
When people talk about legal versus illegal nannies they are not referring to citizenship status, but whether or not someone is legally allowed to work in the United States. A nanny who is not a U.S. citizen may still be in the country legally—for example on a tourist visa or a student visa—but unless she actually has a work visa or a green card, she is technically not allowed to seek employment.
That said, many parents hire nannies despite the fact that they do not have the appropriate paperwork. They get around this by paying “off the books”—that is, they pay cash under the table so that the nanny doesn’t have to report or pay taxes on the income. This is because it is much less expensive and easier to do. In the beginning some families are not certain if their nanny will last and wait to place them on the books after that trial which they end up forgetting.
However, paying your nanny off-the-books is against the law. If you are an employer, you are legally required by the federal and state governments to report any wages paid and withhold your employee’s taxes and social security.
The important piece to understand when assessing your childcare options is there are some risks to hiring illegal nannies: they could be deported, you cannot travel with them out of the country and they could possess a more fearful attitude toward certain situations.
I hate the Twitter locution “let that sink in,” but I think “when assessing your childcare options … there are some risks to hiring illegal nannies” deserves it.
So, how widespread are illegal nanny employers? At least according to Nanny.org, “there are between 800,000 and 1.2 million professional nannies living and working in the United States” (and that qualifier, “professional,” makes me think the real number is higher). Contrast that number to the number of legal employers:
Only about in the U.S. report household employee wages, even when workers like nannies providing childcare services should be reported as a W-2 domestic employee.
According to the IRS, Schedule H filings have declined, even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that child care worker and home health aide positions are growing. Although there are many factors at play, tax evasion is likely a main cause of this discrepancy — less than 9% of surveyed domestic employees worked for an employer who paid into Social Security.
Overall, it’s estimated that up to 75% to 95% of people who employ domestic workers don’t pay employment taxes. That’s a lot of people who could find themselves in serious legal trouble — and the plea of “everyone’s doing it” won’t hold up in court.
Even though, from Amber Heard, we know that in fact “everyone” is doing it. So, take the lowball estimate of 800,000 nanny employers. Of those employers, 250,000, or about 30%, are legal. And if you don’t lowball the estimates, you get numbers like 5% to 25%. And once again, to make the class angle clear, the working class can’t afford to hire nannies. That means the illegal employers are the 9.9% on up to the 0.1%. And the less secure (more “aspirational”) these employers are in their class — “A lot of people are hanging on by the skin of their teeth” — the more incentive they have to pay their nanny under the table.
So, why do we never call these illegal professional employers “illegals”? Or perhaps more precisely: Why do the professionals in the media, legal, educational, medical, entertainment, and political classes never call each other “illegals”? Why are the only “illegals” always working class? A question that answers itself, once asked.
I said I’d offer some telling anecdotes; here’s one, from the Beltway, on optics. From DC Urban Mom:
It seems like everyone I know in the greater DC area hires documented nannies, for very obvious reasons (namely that its the law, we have many federal workers, etc.). Personally, I have no problem hiring an undocumented worker and realize that I’d be breaking the law by doing so. No need to tell me how I’m terrible I am for cheating the government. Frankly, I’d be helping an individual and their family who otherwise might not have work. I’m okay with that.
If they are undocumented I pay less and don’t pay any extras to the gov’t (whats the point, they are undoc) so no taxes or withholdings or anything. It saves us a lot of money.
I interviewed nannies. Maybe because of my low advertised range, half wanted cash with no reporting to the IRS. The breakdown was that two were citizens, one had a green card, and three were undocumented. I personally liked one of the undocumented person the best, but I couldn’t get this nagging feeling out of me. While I was dragging my feet as to whether to go with illegals or not, ironically, she stopped communicating with me because she asked for a higher rate and we said no. The stereotype that illegals command a lower wage was not true in my limited anecdotal nanny search journey. She was getting $15 PT and wanted me to basically match it. I have not hired anyone yet but my final two are citizens who said yes to my rates advertised.
[T]he last twenty years, I have been fortunate to harness the effects of upward mobility. My former working-class, rural upbringing has morphed gradually into an upper-class, urban existence. The beat-up used cars and cramped row homes of my youth have been replaced with BMWs and six-bedroom Victorians. Another new experience—unheard of in my childhood but common among my current friends and neighbors—is the use of nannies.
How to find a nanny
I’m comfortable doing most of my own research before a large purchase. However, you can’t yet buy nannies on Amazon (at least not until Robonannies become a thing).
Of course, for the 9.9%, legal is the same as optional:
Some choose to (illegally) pay nannies under the table, i.e. without taxes.
Because it’s always about “choice,” isn’t it? However, this employer is exceptionally scrupulous:
One of the candidates we interviewed and otherwise quite liked strongly preferred to be paid this way—a deal breaker for us. When our nanny agreed to be paid “over the table,” we breathed a sigh of relief….. In the end, we decided to use a “nanny tax service” at the cost of ~$1000/yr. I know, I know. But for this fee, they direct deposit our nanny’s paycheck after automatically withholding the appropriate taxes; collect and remit all federal and state taxes (employee and employer) on a quarterly basis; and provide and file all the necessary tax paperwork come April/
So, exceptionally, this employer is legal (though when the paperwork costs $1,000 a year, you can see why an employer hanging onto their professional aspirations by “the skin of their teeth” would choose to avoid it). However, there’s so much else here that Thomas Frank would love: (1) “Dr. Curious” answered the Professional Question — “Why don’t they just move?” — with a resounding “I will!” Further — sharing an attitude with the 0.1% — (2) Dr. Curious would be happy replacing her human “purchase” with a robot, once the technology is there. Almost an ideal type, no? But think of the children…
 After all, if workers were able to hire other workers, they’d be capitalists, right? Except for casual labor, of course. (As I keep saying, it’s complicated!)
 “Failure to pay employment taxes for ANY worker, legal or undocumented, is felony tax evasion.” Granted, from a broker.
 From Pew Research: “Six states account for 59% of unauthorized immigrants: California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois.” I’ve helpfully highlighted the “optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward” liberal Democrat strongholds.
 Perhaps should be more civil, and instead of calling these lawbreaking employers “illegals,” I should call them “optionals.”
I don’t feel the research in this post — except for the anecdotes! — is up to my usual standards, and I’m sorry. In my defense, the nanny labor market itself, being at least partly underground, is complicated, so numbers are hard to come by. Official categories are not always on point (“domestic workers”). And above all, in Google, it was almost impossible to find anything, because there are pages and pages and pages of links about how to hire nannies, and problems with nannies after having hired them, and nanny brokerage publicity. On top of all that, I have never had to hire a nanny personally, so the terms and conditions of nanny employment, and hence what to search on, are unfamiliar to me. Sorry to whinge; improvements to the data gladly accepted!