Sandra Rosales’s voice takes on an affectionate lilt when she recalls the notes she received from the two girls she used to care for in Brooklyn. “If I had to describe you in one word it would be loving,” one of her nanny charges, now 9, wrote to Ms. Rosales last year. “Thanks for encouraging me to be brave.”
Ms. Rosales spent six years with them, working 10 hours a day and five days a week. They were family. Until they weren’t.
When Ms. Rosales, 54, got Covid in December 2020, the family she worked for told her that it wouldn’t continue to pay her while she was ill.
Something clicked for her that month, when she lay in her Queens apartment with a fever that climbed to 105 degrees. “I love those kids,” she said. But, she added, “when this situation happened, I was like, ‘I’m not part of this family.’”
The pandemic ripped open the seams of a child care sector that had long been unraveling. Care workers faced new risks to their safety and had little to protect them. Many grew frustrated with their working conditions — shaped by a culture that experts say devalues domestic work because it is done primarily by women of color — and searched for safer jobs and higher wages.
The child care field shrank, going from more than one million people who classified themselves as child care workers at the end of 2019 to 913,000 at the end of 2021, according to unpublished data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At child care centers, low wages and exhaustion were the top-ranked reasons employers lost staff. As of January, more than half of families in the country were reporting trouble finding child care, and the sector’s job postings on Indeed rose 8 percent since 2019.
Like many other traditionally low-wage workers, some child care workers have seen a rise in their wages and benefits as a result of the labor shortage. The median hourly wage for child care workers in 2021 was $13.22, compared with $11.65 in 2019 and $12.24 in 2020.
But to make the fleeting wins they’ve seen sustainable, workers are finding ways to get organized.
For families that had always struggled to find and afford care, last year’s shortage of workers in the industry and lack of openings in care centers exacerbated the challenge, leading many parents — especially mothers — to leave their jobs so they could watch their children.
Domestic workers fell sick, and few had health care or sick leave. If they were laid off, they often couldn’t get unemployment benefits. Most estimates suggest that 90 percent of nannies across the country are paid off the books.
“The pandemic hit on top of the already existing child care crisis,” said Emily Dills, founder of the Seattle Nanny Network, which includes 35,000 nannies. “It’s a layered crisis situation. It’s just total mayhem.”
Out of the crisis came scattered bright spots for caregivers and the families who rely on their help. A number of nanny organizations — including Adventure Nannies and Nannies by Noa, which together have worked with tens of thousands of nannies — reported that average wages have climbed as much as $10 per hour since before the pandemic, a spike they attributed to tightening labor supply, with paid time off and retirement plan offerings rising for some workers as well.
HomeWork Solutions, one of the country’s largest domestic worker payroll organizations, said it saw a roughly double-digit increase in the share of families contacting it wanting to pay their nannies on the books, which allows nannies to be eligible for unemployment benefits. The last two years have also prompted families to seek more flexible child care arrangements, like nanny shares, which agencies say often mean higher wages and more formalized work arrangements.
But child care during a remote-work era got thornier, with telecommuting parents sometimes disrupting routines and attempts at disciplining children. Ms. Rosales, for example, said she was always careful to give the children she watched yogurt in the afternoon instead of sugary snacks so they wouldn’t have trouble falling asleep. But when they ran to their parents, they’d sometimes be given ice cream, she said.
Home caregivers on a Reddit forum for nannies, r/nanny, have shared accounts about micromanagement by employers. In interviews, some nannies said they had been chided for failing to prevent a child from interrupting a parent’s Zoom meeting.
And some said their attempts to call for higher wages and better conditions had been eclipsed by the idea that care work should be a “labor of love,” run on emotional currency.
“I have to keep reminding myself: ‘Don’t get too emotionally involved,’” said Stephanie Felzenberg, a nanny in New Jersey who lost her job early in the pandemic partly because the parents who employed her started working from home. “It’s not criticizing the family to ask for a raise.”
Some caregivers hoped that the pandemic would force a reckoning over the true value of their work, as the unemployment rate for mothers with infants and toddlers nearly doubled in 2020. Instead, most found that the work became more precarious. And though wages appear to be rising, caregivers say they’re not all reaping the benefits. Spread unevenly, the gains are hardly enough to make up for decades of paltry wages and poor treatment, workers say.
“It’s 10 steps backward and a few steps forward,” said Stacy Kono, executive director of Hand in Hand, a national network of domestic employers.
The sector’s upheaval over the last two years has inspired many domestic and child care workers — who were largely isolated from one another even before the pandemic — to seek out ways to organize collectively.
The National Domestic Workers Alliance doubled the number of people involved in its chapters and initiatives and distributed $30 million to workers in emergency cash payments. Family child care workers, who work as licensed providers, also organized: Some 40,000 of them in California won their union in 2020 and then their first contract in 2021, a joint effort of AFSCME/U.D.W. and the Service Employees International Union, Locals 99 and 521. The contract included pay increases of 15 percent, on average.
Another bright spot, child care providers said, has been the growth of resources supporting unconventional care arrangements. In late 2020, Ms. Dills’s organization, in Seattle, heard from dozens of families interested in sharing nannies, so her team created a nanny-share tool kit, which includes tips about how to use direct deposits to avoid late payments and coordinate which family would supply personal protective equipment. The organization’s Facebook group for families looking to share care has tripled during the pandemic to include 3,500 people.
When families share child care, Ms. Dills added, they typically pay their nannies more. Some families have also renegotiated contracts so their nannies can take their own children to work.
Neighborhood organizations have also expanded, making formal the connections among workers who had previously crossed paths only at school pickup. The Carroll Gardens Nanny Association grew to 5,000 domestic workers from 300 during the pandemic, and expanded from its Brooklyn base to include Long Island and New Jersey.
Ms. Rosales joined the group years ago, after meeting its founder on the street near her employer’s home. Ms. Rosales is undocumented but decided that organizing other domestic workers was worth the risk, she said, especially after she had spent weeks sick without pay, feeling guilty that she couldn’t send checks home to her own son and daughter in Guatemala.
On a recent Wednesday evening, a group of nannies in New York, including Ms. Rosales, convened on Zoom with local policymakers and employers to plan for months of organizing, including a push to persuade more New York families to use work agreements.
“Your children are looking at you,” Tatiana Bejar, an organizer, said to the parents watching. “They will be better people if they see you treating people with respect.”