A Nanny Reflects on the Pandemic and the U.S. Labor System

Before I continue, I must acknowledge that, in some sense, I am one of the “lucky ones.” I can lean on my family for support, and I work for a generous, socially conscious family that has granted me paid leave, as well as another family that has promised to “make it up to me.” Many employers may not be so considerate, or may not be able to afford paid leave for nannies, housekeepers, and other domestic workers. 

Still, I face uncertainty. Although one of my employers is still paying me, I can’t be sure how long they will be able to afford to do so; who’s to say whether their income will remain stable? And I’m not quite sure what “making it up to me” means. Additionally, none of this compensates for the loss of many other babysitting gigs which I normally rely on to fill gaps in my income.

I should also mention that I am immunocompromised. I have a chronic health condition that puts me at a higher risk from the virus. This is one of the reasons why I was relieved when New York City public schools closed and when Governor Cuomo ceded to Mayor DeBlasio’s calls for a shelter-in-place by ordering a statewide “PAUSE.” In a country like ours without an adequate social safety net, there is a strong financial motivation for businesses to stay open and for workers to show up, endangering their lives. Thus it was imperative that the government step in, rather than simply hope that everyone decides to stay home.

This government intervention came just weeks after I interviewed writer and labor-rights activist Sarah Jaffe for Lilith’s Spring 2020 issue. Jaffe warns of the dangers of “leaving it up to individual people deciding to be nice [to service workers],” when it comes to tipping and the lack of a tipped minimum wage. Jaffe’s argument holds true doubly in our altered current economic circumstances. Now that many people are facing job insecurity and unemployment, and those who are deemed “essential workers” are vulnerable to disease, the conversation surrounding labor laws and worker protections is more critical than ever. We must consider not only the employers making decisions about paid leave, but also (and more importantly), the greater governmental structures that can make it either easier or more difficult for employers to do so.

I can’t be sure that my employers would have been able to offer paid leave if their employers had not been required to allow them to work from home. But as the pandemic continues and we begin to see the economic fallout more and more, these circumstances can easily change.

The new government stimulus and pandemic unemployment insurance may be helpful, but they are band-aid fixes to what will likely be a long-term financial crisis. And if the goal is to eventually “go back to normal,” many workers will simply be returning to insufficient wages and benefits, long hours, and continued vulnerability to unexpected crises.

I share Jaffe’s fear about our current labor system and lack of adequate government protections. And I have grave concern for workers whose jobs require the sort of in-person labor that will remain impossible for the foreseeable future, as well as for those without the safety of adequate paid leave or a family support system—the pandemic is revealing more clearly than ever how broken our system truly is.