The headache of "finding good help" used to be an affliction of the rich, one of the little aggravations--like locating a reputable summer home for your furs--that was peculiar to life in the gold-paved lane.
No more. With half the mothers of preschool children working outside their homes, an increasing number of middle-class parents want to employ a surrogate to be at home with the kids when they can't.
Just like their well-heeled counterparts in the employment market, however, most discover that "finding good help" isn't easy. "There is more demand for good people than there are good people," says Ilene Fletcher, owner of the Community Service Agency in Tarzana.
Nonetheless, some parents find the prospect of in-home child care worth the trouble of finding it. "Some people would just prefer not to have their child in a large group, especially when they're young," says Kathleen Malaske-Samu, executive director of Child Care Information Service, a resource and referral agency in Pasadena.
If you reach that conclusion, then what?
Child care experts say parents must begin by deciding exactly what they want and need. "It's so important to think through what you want to have happen and not be hesitant about making it happen," says Jean Brunkow, project director for the YMCA Childcare Resource Service in San Diego, which screens and refers candidates for in-home jobs.
Do you want someone to live in or live out? Must they have prior experience? References? A car? Do you care if they smoke? Watch television during the day? Entertain visitors? What do you expect the care giver to do with her working hours--child care alone or housekeeping, cooking and laundry, as well? Must she speak English and, if so, how much? Do you have concerns about hiring an undocumented worker?
Your priorities will largely determine the best kind of care giver for your family and what she will cost.
Fletcher, whose private Community Service Agency has been providing domestic employment services for more than 30 years, says she has placed care givers for as little as $90 a week and as much as $500.
As a rough rule of thumb, she says, a care giver who speaks no English but has references and performs light housekeeping will cost $100 to $150 a week. If the person speaks some English, the salary for the same skills typically starts at $125. An English speaker without a car but who can help with the cooking and laundry as well as the housekeeping typically costs $150 to $175, Fletcher says, while a worker with a driver's license who will run errands in your car starts at $200. Trained nannies or housekeepers with their own cars usually cost at least $225. (These rates usually prevail whether the care giver is a live-in or live-out.)
Once you have defined your needs, there are a number of ways--for free or for a fee--to go about filling them.
The state Department of Education provides funding for 67 child care resource and referral agencies (listed under Child Care in the Yellow Pages) that offer information on licensed child care facilities free of charge regardless of your income. Some of these also provide counseling and keep lists of unlicensed in-home care givers they have screened.
Baby sitting and employment agencies are likely to offer more job prospects. They will charge a fee, but they also provide some kind of guarantee. Friends, co-workers and acquaintances can be invaluable. "Use every network available to you," says Malaske-Samu of Child Care Information Service. Finally, there is advertising in a local or metropolitan newspaper. It's cheaper than using an agency but will take more of your time because you'll have to screen all the applicants.
No matter how you come up with your candidates, child care experts say, you should check references carefully and interview thoroughly before making a selection. Ask previous employers what they liked most and least about the care giver, why the person left and whether they would recommend that someone else employ the individual.
Find out from your job candidates why they want this job, what age and sex they prefer in their young charges, whether their ideas about childrearing mesh with yours. Look at how they dress, listen to the kinds of questions they ask. Child care experts say it's not a bad idea to require at least a tuberculosis clearance.
In the end, however, they all advise following your instincts. "You do not have to be objective in your assessment. Gut feelings can be important signals," IBM advises its employees in a 20-page booklet the company commissioned from Work/Family Directions in Boston. Once you have settled on a care giver, it may be helpful to set out in writing the expectations of both sides.
Bess Manchester, referral coordinator for the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network, a San Francisco organization that serves the state's referral agencies, recommends covering salary, hours, overtime, vacations, sick days, holidays, benefits and the anticipated responsibilities of both employer and employee. By reducing friction, a written agreement can help with the problem you will face once you find good help: how to keep it.