There are a thousand stories in the naked city of Los Angeles, but when it comes to nannies, there are at least a million - nannies who have a free reign of the household, nannies who make good salaries, nannies who get help from their employers to buy cars or put a down payment on a house. But there are the other stories as well - the nanny who works long hours for little pay, with no holidays, no sick days, no breaks. "I knew when I was here without papers, I didn't deserve to be here," says nanny Carmen Davis, "but still, that didn't mean I deserved to be treated without respect."
Davis, 33, from Colima, Mexico, is registered with Nana's World, "the best professional service for all your domestic needs," in Sherman Oaks, owned and operated by Esther Matalon, a Sephardic Jew from Chile. Matalon is a straight talking, tough-minded businesswomen who has built her agency from the ground up, placing Latinos, Israelis and east Europeans in well-off families from the Valley to Pacific Palisades; about half her clients are Jewish. Since she started in business 14 years ago, she has seen her employees walk a thin line between the good, the bad, and the ugly - between trust and mistrust, between closeness and contempt.
"There should be a code of respect for nan-nies," she says. "If [an employer] trusts a nanny enough to take care of his children, then he should trust [her] as a person. They should treat her like a human being," Matalon says in a challenge to her clients.
The story about Davis is a happy one, although she admits it wasn't always that way. Through Matalon, she worked for three years with a Jewish family in Agoura Hills, one of the best job experiences she ever had.From day one, Carmen's employers (who wished to remain anonymous for this article) tried to make Carmen feel at home. "They really cared about me, always asking about my family, always nice and polite about the way they treated me," Davis says. "If I got sick and needed to have a day off, or whatever, they understood."
Davis' employer felt the same way. "I hired her because her attitude was upbeat and because of her philosophy - that the child was the most important thing. We developed a really close bond. She gave my [child] a real comfort zone - safe and secure. My wife never worried once when she was at work."Davis, who is married with no children, began her day at 5:30 a.m. to arrive at work by 7:30 a.m. She started right in. "I would feed the baby, change her diaper, play with her, take her for a walk," Davis recounts. "When she was growing up, we would go to the park. We made a lot of friends there."
In the park, Davis and her young charge would find five to seven other nannies with young children to play with. The majority of the nannies Davis met were Latino live-ins who worked for Jewish families. Most were without papers and spoke little English. Their situation was different from Davis', who had a car, spoke English and insisted on time off to go to school (she is studying child development and English).These nannies worked from early in the morning until late at night, often getting up during the middle of the night to care for children. They had no time for themselves, no paid sick days, no holidays off and no privacy. They were expected to clean the house as well. All for $30 to $50 a day.
One of the women in particular, Davis says, was staying on, not because she liked the family, but because she didn't want to leave the children. "The family didn't treat her bad, but they didn't really care for her. They didn't even realize how good she was. If I was the mom, I wouldn't even be able to pay for the love and care she put into those kids."
How much, then, does a good nanny cost? Matalon reveals that a typical salary for a nanny who owns a car and has papers ranges from $500 to $750. For nannies without papers and with little English, a typical salary can fall as low as $150 to $250 a week. (Matalon's minimum is $200.)
Davis commanded the top-of-the-line salary. For her friends at the park, though, she realized their options were limited, as hers had once been.
"Once I worked for a lady [when I was first here and spoke little English]... I said, 'You know what, you make a lot of mess in the morning when you make breakfast; you make a lot of mess at noon when you make lunch (and I wasn't making this up either) and you eat dinner really late; I can't stay up this late and get up really early, so we have to have a schedule here.'
"She said, 'Well, I hired you as a live-in nanny,' and I said, 'Yeah, I know, but I don't have to stay up this late.'
She got really upset and told me if I didn't like this job I could go look for something else. I said, 'Okay, if that's the way you want it.' I went to my room, and less than an hour later, she [knocked on my door] and said, 'You know, I'm sorry, you were right.' "
Davis contemplates a few unalienable rights she would like to see granted to nannies, even if they don't have papers or speak English.
"Give us a separate room. Provide for us food. Make a schedule for the nanny. Just because you have a live-in nanny doesn't mean she is available 24 hours a day. We should have sick days, a paid vacation. Why not? Nannies like holidays, too.
"Sometimes you feel like you're trapped. Employers should have flexibility. Once I worked for a woman who wouldn't let me do anything. I asked her if I could go for a walk after I had finished my work. She said 'No. I might need you.' I told her, 'Once I put the kids to bed, it's my own time. You know what, I'm not a slave.'"