A Brief History of the Nanny in America

September 14, 2016

Domestic workers, often women and minorities, clean houses, offer child care services, run errands and generally keep many affluent and middle-class households up and running. Hundreds of thousands of domestics work long shifts each day at below minimum wage. To understand the economics and cultural issues that impacted legislation surrounding these wage earners, you need to understand a bit about how nannies started working in the United States.

This article will take a brief but informative look at the history of the nanny in the USA.

A Brief History of the Evolution of Domestic Workers

Black Nanny and White Child 1912 art by Lee Greene Richards+Nanny+with+Child+in+a+Garden+1912.jpg "Black Nanny and White Child 1912 art by Lee Greene Richards")

art by Lee Greene Richards

The timeline starts in the 1800s. Before the Civil War, many domestics were slaves. After the slaves were freed, they became virtual slaves, working for wages that would not put food on the table.

white American baby girl with black slave nanny

photo credit: “We Are Literally Slaves”: An Early Twentieth-Century Black Nanny Sets the Record Straight

1870: More than half of all working women were domestics

As of 1870, domestic work and personal service was the single largest industry that employed women, likely another reason why the plight of the domestic worker received little to no coverage.

1912: Domestic workers speak out about ridiculous work environments

One “hired girl,” spoke out about conditions in an employment situation as a domestic worker in a postcard published in Outlook Magazine. Her contention was simple. Women should run their households in the same way people run a business. Provide menus in advance, order groceries to fulfill those menu requests, manage a schedule and pay on time were all suggestions for a better working environment. When this was published in 1912, there were little to no protections in place for these workers.

1935: Unions legalized for virtually every other industry

The same remain true today. In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, allowing workers to unionize. The only industries excluded were domestic and agricultural workers. At the time, the issue was one of race. Minorities filled the vast majority of these roles, and Southern states were very resistant to protection for them.

1938: FLSA enacted, but not for nannies

In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) went into effect. This legal change pushed through the 40-hour workweek, overtime pay and abolished child labor. Again, it applied to all industries except for domestic, agriculture and service industries.

1974: Amended FLSA

It wasn’t until 1974 that domestic workers gained protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act, but child care and elderly companion workers remained excluded. The nanny was a position with no legal protections and a wealth of responsibility.

1995: Slavery in the modern era

To date, almost all legal protections that exist for laborers exclude domestic help in general and care providers specifically. As recently as 1995, slavery in the form of unpaid domestic workers was a concern in Washington D.C. Foreign nationals imported domestic help. These workers were kept under house arrest, worked seven days a week and received no compensation.

Total Salary Package

In addition to the lack of a defined minimum wage, guaranteed overtime and lack of job protection, most nannies miss out on basic benefits. Since employers of domestics usually only have one or two people working for them, they are not required to offer health benefits or vacation time. Retirement benefits are another part of the package that tends to fall to the wayside.

Valuing Your Child Care Provider

A nanny offers personalized care to your children. When you hire someone and ask them to work 15 hours s days, seven days a week, you marginalize these workers. In the end, the people who suffer most are your children. These overworked and underpaid employees rarely perform at peak efficiency. When you’re hiring a nanny, don’t imagine it will look anything like romanticized versions of the job such as those portrayed in the 90s sitcom The Nanny. Fran Drescher’s character may have married into wealth and family life, but many nannies deal with verbal and sexual harassment.

Love your nanny- domestic workers make all other work possible

photo credit: NDWA, California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights Campaign

In an attempt to provide some protection to this vulnerable class, New York State pushed through a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to provide them with some general legal protections. In New York, employers are required to pay overtime for every hour after 40 in the work week, or 44 for those who live in employer-provided housing. One day off every week and at least three paid vacation days per year after a year of employment are also part of the bill.

What You Need to Know When Hiring a Nanny

New York may have started things off in 2010, but the Obama Administration continued the trend with legislation designed to ensure minimum wage applies to domestic workers. The Federal minimum wage is $7.25, but that may not be the rate required in your state.

Some states have a higher minimum wage. When you’re looking for in-home child care, you need to work out a variety of details, including:

  • Vacation time
  • Scheduling
  • Compensation
  • Job responsibilities

Modern day nanny with child

Nannies provide full-time care for your children, but full-time doesn’t mean around the clock. It means a regular working day. For a live-in nanny, that day may be split into two distinct shifts — morning and evening. You may want a nanny to come in and drop the kids off at school, but you might not need your nanny again until school lets out. For school-age children, nanny services might only take up six hours each day. When you have younger children or expect a nanny to also provide domestic services, things become more complex. You’ll need to develop a mutually-agreed-upon schedule that works for both of you. The last thing you want to do is become part of an abusive system.

Remember that your nanny is looking after the most important thing in your life…your children. Paying a competitive wage, fair working hours and ideal working conditions will benefit the nanny, you and your children.

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