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Nannies take on extra duties as households economize

Along with child care, nannies are asked to do the cleaning, shopping and other tasks once done by others.

March 21, 2009|Christy Hobart

When a nanny with 10 years of experience was let go last year after her Hancock Park employers divorced, she had a hard time finding a new job. After five months of looking, she changed her application at the placement agency from "nanny" to "housekeeper" -- and lowered her hourly rate.

It worked. Soon she was hired at a 10,000-square-foot house near Malibu as a housekeeper -- until the family's nanny was laid off. For $3 more an hour, the housekeeper began steaming the carpets -- and feeding the dogs and making dinner -- with a baby on her hip. When the family also let go its personal assistant, she took on grocery shopping, managing the gardener, directing the pool man, helping with the family business . . .

"I definitely can't say no," says the housekeeper-nanny- personal assistant, who asked that her name not be used for fear of getting fired. After all, she has four children of her own to support.

Households everywhere are looking to economize at home, perhaps switching to generic products, starting up (or letting go of) a membership at Costco or dropping premium channels from their cable service. But when these efforts don't make a material dent in the finances, they search for bigger cuts -- and that can mean the household staff. Do they really need a nanny? Or a housekeeper? And for those lucky enough to have both, couldn't the jobs be combined?

For people who went into the nanny business with a love of children and clearly defined boundaries about what they will and won't do -- yes to making the kids' lunch, no to cleaning toilets -- the recession is blurring those lines. The bosses' finances and nannies' own tenuous job security are forcing many workers to redefine not only what they do, but also who they are.

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Nannies air their frustrations at the Nanny and Me group at the parenting center of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. Gabrielle Kaufman facilitates the group, which started as a place where Spanish-speaking nannies could engage in educational play with their charges while learning about nutrition, safety and health. It's also a place where nannies can swap stories, and Kaufman has noticed more anxiety creeping into their conversations.

"Even though they're doing a lot more than they used to," she says, "they feel they can't complain. They feel lucky to have a job."

Kaufman hears of nannies offering to take on more responsibilities in an effort to make themselves indispensable -- or to squeeze another household employee out of a job.

Joanna Brody of Culver City doesn't question the motives of her nanny, who offered to take on more cleaning duties while her toddlers napped.

"She likes to keep busy," Brody says.

Although the extra help was appreciated, it put Brody in a difficult situation as it became clear she didn't need twice-monthly cleaning service. Now the service comes just once a month.

"I feel bad for Philip," Brody says of the owner of the cleaning company she's been using for more than a year. "He's a hard-working entrepreneur, and he's always done a good job. I don't want to take work away from him, but it just doesn't make much sense to keep them both."

Katie Vaughan, head of Westside Nannies, a high-end placement agency whose clients might seem recession-safe, has found lately that families new to the service have been asking for workers who can combine jobs.

"They'll ask for a nanny who can do some cleaning or, even more," she says. "They're looking for a nanny who can take on assistant duties, like buying groceries and gifts, writing thank-you notes, party planning and secretarial work."

Realizing they need to compromise to get a job, prospective employees are more flexible than in the past.

"The typical English nanny or governess used to roll her eyes when I'd ask if she'd be open to cleaning," says Claudia Kahn, owner of the Help Co., another placement agency. "Now they're all saying, 'Send me on the interview.' "

During these tough economic times, a nanny may agree to take on household chores to keep her job, but there are risks to asking for too much, says Lindsay Heller, a psychologist who consults on family and nanny issues and who runs the Nanny Doctor, a service aimed at improving relationships between the two parties.

"It's tempting, financially," she says, but as a result the nanny may feel resentment. "You might see some passive-aggressive behavior," she says, such as showing up late for work.

Heller, who was a nanny for 10 years, warns that employers also could offend a nanny or housekeeper by suggesting that the positions are interchangeable. They are professional roles, she says, and should be respected. Not every nanny is a good housekeeper, and not every housekeeper can take on child-care duties.

"If not done properly," she says, "the child is at risk."

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