In an Economic Downturn, It's the Nannies Who Are Crying

Liz Caceres of Rockville looks after her new charges at D.C.'s Friendship Park. She struggled to find a job after her last employer experienced a layoff, she said.
Liz Caceres of Rockville looks after her new charges at D.C.'s Friendship Park. She struggled to find a job after her last employer experienced a layoff, she said. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
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By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 14, 2009

One Potomac mother of five used to prepare for interviews with prospective nannies like a Hollywood audition. She cleaned her house, made sure the children were quietly coloring and "glamified" the family's lifestyle, which includes regular trips overseas. She capped off talks with a tour of an au pair suite so deluxe it was mentioned in a glossy home magazine.

This year, the pressure is off. When she recently posted an ad online for a new nanny, she was inundated with responses from qualified candidates and unemployed women seeking a job, any job. She ended up hiring a nanny agency to vet candidates.

A fundamental shift of power has occurred in Washington in recent months, and it has nothing to do with politics. For decades, good nannies were a hot commodity in a town rife with workaholics, where the percentage of working women is higher than the national average. The best nannies had to be snapped up immediately and kept happy with regular raises and other benefits, lest they be poached right off the playground by conniving parents.

In the past six to eight months, though, agencies report a deluge of available nannies as parents losing their jobs or downsizing turn to cheaper child-care options, including staying at home. Neighborhood e-mail lists are bristling with parents posting jobs for their former nannies. ("Dream nanny available immediately!") Real-life Mary Poppinses who once had their pick of jobs are finding themselves out of work for weeks, or months, at a time.

Parents have more choices, and some are thrilled about it.

"Before, I felt like they were interviewing us. . . . Now, I'll be in the driver's seat," said Lesley Kalan, a consultant from Alexandria who is seeking a nanny for her three children.

Lorna Spencer, co-owner of A Choice Nanny in Columbia, said that her business is down 50 percent in the past year and that the number of out-of-work nannies she is trying to place has doubled. Spencer used to have 10 qualified candidates to send to families; now she has 20 or more.

"We're finding a lot of parents getting laid off, and they have to let the nannies go," she said. "We have many nannies desperate for work . . . calling us every day."

Even in good times, nannies have little job security and work for relatively low wages. A nanny in the Washington area makes about $16 an hour, according to a survey by the International Nanny Association. About 13 percent of nannies across the country reported being unemployed last year, up from 8 percent in 2006, according to association estimates.

Liz Caceres, 34, of Rockville lost her nanny job with a District family earlier this year after the father was laid off, she said. She returned from Christmas vacation and learned that the family wanted to slash her hours to one day a week.

Finding another position was tough, Caceres said. She placed an ad online but did not receive a single call. After a month, however, she was able to network her way to new employment through some babysitting connections.

During boom times, nannies had their pick of positions and handsome benefits, according to Barbara Kline, president of White House Nannies, a placement agency in Bethesda.

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