Seventeen-month-old Hazel has settled into the lap of Karen Le Blanc and is eagerly listening as Le Blanc reads and provides all the sound effects to the classic children’s story “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom.” Her twin sister, Abby, is on the move. She’s trying to sneak wadded up paper from a magazine into her mouth, but Le Blanc is quicker and takes the paper away.
Abby cries, but only briefly, then pouts, then happily moves on to playing with a toy while listening to the story.
Le Blanc’s days are spent juggling the diverse interests of Abby and Hazel, but she’s not their mother. She’s a modern Mary Poppins — a nanny.
Abby and Hazel’s father, Matt Scates, says he and his wife, Nancy, have been thrilled with Le Blanc and with their decision to hire a nanny. He is in management at a video games production company. She is an attorney. They needed someone who could care for their daughters, who were born at 28 weeks gestation, and deal with the Scateses’ unpredictable and long work hours.
Le Blanc joined the family in July 2012 and already has had her contract extended until July 2016.
Yes, that’s right. Nannies have contracts, and they get paid overtime. Many get sick days, vacation days and holidays, a health care stipend and mileage. It’s a profession, with an association — the International Nanny Association — and credentials that can be earned. There’s even awards. Le Blanc was a finalist for INA’s 2013 Nanny of the Year.
Le Blanc, 37, came into being a professional nanny after teaching fourth grade in public school, then working in the corporate world. “It’s very much a career choice,” Le Blanc says. She’s worked as a full-time nanny for five years, and this is her third set of twins.
Who makes a good nanny?
Kathy Dupuy, owner of Mom’s Best Friend, an Austin-based nanny agency that she started in 1994, has noticed more and more teachers leaving the classroom to become nannies. While many nannies are in their 20s, Dupuy’s agency has nannies from age 20 to 70. Full-time career nannies tend to be older than their part-time counterparts.
When Dupuy is interviewing potential nannies, she’s looking for people who are reliable and “with a service heart.” “They really get a joy in helping people they are serving,” Dupuy says.
She is wary of people who are looking for a fill-in job when they cannot get another job or people who talk about how the job is going to benefit them.
Rebecca Dunn D’Amico, who has owned the agency Nannies from the Heart since 2001, says she can smell right away who is going to be a good nanny and who is not.
“I call it spark, and I can see it,” she says.
Good nannies, she says, will go through an agency because they want to be treated like professionals. It’s someone who really loves children, she says, not someone who thinks they will be good at it because it’s easy.
She has certain items that she purposely puts on her desk to see if a nanny is truly interested in children. If they light up and comment on those things, rather than just give pat answers, she knows they will be good.
D’Amico says she interviews about 10 a week, and only about three of those will make the cut.
One of the things she’s noticed is a lot of nannies moving here from elsewhere. “They come down for South by Southwest and say, ‘I love Austin and I’m moving,’” she says.
For those nannies, she checks if they belonged to an agency where they came from and, of course, their references. She likes to ask what their financial situation is and how quickly they need a job. Those who need something quickly, she says, are going to take anything and might lie in the interview and then take another job when a better offer comes along.
Elizabeth Juline, owner of Jack and Jill Nanny Agency, which she started last year, is looking for what she calls a “helper’s heart.” They have a commitment to a family and their primary focus is the children.
She is also looking for longevity. If they haven’t been with the same family for more than six months, that’s a red flag for Juline.
A good nanny will interview the families to make sure she is a good fit with them. She’ll want to know that they have similar parenting philosophies.
“It’s like dating in some ways,” Le Blanc says. She sees her relationship with the Scates as a partnership that works together for the care of the twins and the new baby sister that is on the way.
Families are also looking for similar philosophies. Beth Walker, who owns a promotional marketing company, has a full-time nanny for daughters Dillan, 2, and Quinn, 6 months. She says it was very important to her that the nanny’s teaching techniques and discipline methods aligned.
Her nanny, Margarita Romero, “runs a tight ship,” Walker says, and she likes that.
Who’s hiring a nanny?
Many of the families who have chosen a nanny are parents in their 30s who both work. Often, they have jobs that are not typically 9 to 5. Juline has had a lot of families that work unconventional shifts that either have early morning or late night hours.
Most nanny searches take between two and eight weeks using an agency. D’Amico recommends expectant mothers start when they are about seven months’ pregnant. She likes for a nanny to start about two weeks before a mom has to go back to work so the nanny and the family get comfortable with one another. For older children, create a trial period with a new nanny, and don’t rush into it. Many agencies will offer a temporary nanny until a family has found the right one.
Families are looking for all kinds of arrangements, from full-time care to part-time and after-school. Some families even nanny-share when there are two families nearby with similar-aged children. Austin does have some live-in nannies, but that’s typically not the norm.
It’s not cheap. Full-time nannies make between $30,000 and $40,000 a year or $16-$20 an hour. Those costs are going up as the cost of living in Austin is also going up.
Families pay placement fees to the agency that are either a flat fee from between $995-$2,150 depending on their hiring needs or between 12 percent to 20 percent of the nanny’s annual salary. Agencies do all the background checks and serve as matchmakers. Some families also use online services, but that requires weeding out hundreds of matches.
Nannies are now increasingly asking for things in their contracts including sick time, vacation days, holidays and either health care or a health care stipend. Many families also provide a car for use when the nanny is driving the children around or a vehicle stipend and, of course, mileage.
One of the things families don’t realize is if you pay someone more than $1,800 in a year, they are your employee, says Stephanie Breedlove, an Austinite who started Breedlove and Associates, a household payroll services company, 21 years ago. It became Care.com Homepay managed by Breedlove and Associates last year.
By a nanny being your employee, you have to pay payroll taxes including income tax, Medicare and Social Security.
Legally, you want to pay these taxes because families typically get caught not paying taxes when a disgruntled employee leaves and tries to file for unemployment, Breedlove says. The family usually has to pay back taxes plus interest and a penalty. There also can be fines and charges of tax evasion, she says, though that doesn’t usually happen.
Breedlove also says families are entitled to some tax breaks for having an employee, which helps offset some of the payroll tax costs. Families cannot legally pay taxes unless the nanny is a documented worker, she says.
Breedlove estimates that it takes about 55 hours a year for families to handle all the paperwork on their own, but her service does it for the families. Many nannies will require families to use a professional payroll preparer so they know their taxes are being taken care of and so they can get direct deposit. Breedlove charges $800 a year for her service.
Happy nanny, happy family
Most nannies who come from an agency will have a detailed contract that will go over all of the nanny’s responsibilities and all of her benefits.
“Things that they don’t think of can be critical,” Breedlove says. The assumptions can be very different on both sides. For example, a family might not think they need to pay a nanny if they are on vacation and not using her. A nanny might expect to be paid for that time.
Some nanny agencies provide multiple-page contracts as a starting point. Families should establish in the contract what household chores are expected. Le Blanc does all the grocery shopping and laundry for Abby and Hazel, but she doesn’t do that for their parents. She’ll vacuum if the girls make a mess, but that’s not her primary job. She does handle making appointments for the girls and dealing with their health insurance.
Families should also encourage nannies to network with other nannies and moms by going to playgroups or regular activities. Being at home every day can become very isolating.
Communication is really crucial for everyone. Good nannies regularly tell parents what their children did that day. Good employers will give nannies regular feedback, both positive and negative, and have set times for employee reviews.
Regular, unexpected recognition, from thank-you notes to gift cards, is also nice, Juline says.
D’Amico tells families to continue to use her as a resource when there’s tension. She had one family call her because the nanny ate a cupcake that was meant to go to a child’s day camp. D’Amico’s solution was for the mom to always make an extra cupcake for the nanny and leave a note that the nanny could have one. It was a simple solution to a problem that had made both sides unhappy.
She encourages families and nannies to always remember that it’s about the children. “These are people’s lives,” she says. “If that nanny is not happy or finds something better two months down the road, the revolving door is terrible for a child.”
For families, there’s a lot of trust that has to be established. “You’re trusting someone in your home, and that’s extremely scary,” Walker says. Yet now they couldn’t imagine not having their nanny.
“She was gone for two weeks this summer at a church function, and we were drowning,” she says. “Our children were a mess … Jay and I almost kissed her feet when she walked in the door. She’s amazing.”
Families can usually tell if it’s a good fit by how the children, even babies, act around the nanny. They should be developing a bond and want to be with her.
Good nannies will become almost like family. Laura Lee Alcayde, who is a part-time nanny for a 7-year-old and an 11-year-old, has been a nanny for nine years. She stays in touch with many of the families she’s worked for. “I don’t have family here in Austin,” she says, “but I’ve really made a family of my own. Anytime there’s a holiday, I’ve never been without a family to go to. It’s just like family. It’s not all roses, but you take the good with the bad. You love each other no matter what.”