Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, child care was a major expense for most parents and an ongoing financial juggle for the majority of families every day. And now that schools, day cares, and preschools are closed and “stay-at-home” mandates have meant releasing nannies and sitters from their child care duties for everyone’s safety, you may be wondering whether or not to pay your regular nanny, sitter, day care or preschool.
“There’s absolutely a legal, ethical and practical component to all of this. What is legal or illegal, what is right or wrong, but also — how will my decision on this play out?” says Damien H. Weinstein, an employment lawyer at Weinstein + Klein, a law firm with offices in New York and New Jersey. “If we handle this situation in a way that our caregiver thinks is unfair or unreasonable, then we’re creating a disconnect between the parent and caregiver. Hardly an ideal situation when you’re relying on that person to provide quality care for your child. You ultimately want to make a decision that maintains a good relationship with the caregiver.”
In addition to Weinstein, we spoke with Eva MacCleery, director of client services for Care.com HomePay and Matt Besser, an employment lawyer and the managing attorney of Bolek Besser Glesius LLC, an employment law firm in Cleveland, Ohio. Here’s how these three experts tell us to break down this complicated question and make a decision based on your family’s unique situation during this uncertain worldwide crisis.
Should I still pay my kids’ nanny or babysitter even if I’ve released them from their child care duties for everyone’s safety?
MacCleery: Yes. Many caregivers live paycheck to paycheck and rely on that income to make ends meet. They still have bills to pay and mouths to feed, so if you can afford to keep paying your caregiver, that would be a tremendous help to them.
Weinstein: This is a common question we’re getting. If there’s a contract (and there always should be), the terms of that contract control. However, many parents are deciding to continue paying their nanny to stay at home so that 1) it avoids hardship on the nanny, and 2) it avoids that awkward conversation of resuming pay and work once this all settles down. Either way, have a conversation. No one expected something like this, so there’s no real rulebook for how to address these issues.
Besser: Follow the terms of the contract. Failing that, try to negotiate a modification with the nanny. [If there is no contract], whether you should pay the nanny or babysitter when not using them during the pandemic is a moral question.
In either situation, it’s a good idea for parents to talk to a lawyer in their individual state [if you have any questions].
Should I keep paying my day care or preschool every week now that they’re closed?
MacCleery: Yes. If you want your child’s spot held for when this is all over, you’ll most likely need to continue paying. The day cares and preschools still have rent to pay and want to continue paying their workers during this unprecedented time.
Weinstein: That depends on the terms of your agreement (if you even have one). Many centers/schools will have a formal agreement, but more informal arrangements don’t. Your best bet may be to speak with the school/provider and negotiate some new terms (whatever that may be) and get any new terms (or waiver of payments) agreed to in writing.
Besser: For a day care or preschool, the first place parents should look to is the contract itself.
Read the day care or preschool contract closely to see if there are any clauses that deal with unexpected school closures. Keep in mind that contract law can vary from state to state, and it’s a good idea for parents to talk to a lawyer in their individual state.
If the facility wants the tuition coming in and demands to credit it towards future weeks, as a practical matter, parents might consider if that is financially feasible.
What are the broader benefits of continuing to pay caregivers right now?
MacCleery: Caregivers will continue to pay their rent, mortgages, etc., and they’ll basically continue contributing to the economy and living a somewhat normal life so they won’t miss a beat and can resume working as soon as it’s safe.
Weinstein: Maintaining that relationship. It may be a financial burden, but your caregiver will appreciate the fact that you’re not passing on that burden to them. Remember, they take care of your kids.
Besser: There are at least two. The first is that caregivers help hold our society together, and often do so for very little pay. They likely don’t have much of a savings safety net to fall back on, and they might not even have healthcare. Although the pandemic hurts everyone financially, for those in lower paying jobs, this is a terrifyingly vulnerable time. Anything we can do to help others will help us all dig out of this hole sooner than if we all fend for ourselves.
On a more practical level, parents might want to consider whether cutting off the caregiver entirely might force that person to find work elsewhere. Then when things start to recover, the parents might be looking for a new caregiver at an inconvenient time.
What if I can’t pay the full amount?
MacCleery: Anything helps! And if your caregiver is being paid legally, they may qualify for benefits such as unemployment, which provides financial assistance for their reduced or lost hours.
Weinstein: Seek a modification to the terms, in writing. Some pay is better than no pay. Everyone is suffering a bit.
Besser: Again this will depend on whether there is a contract. If there is a caregiver contract and the parents can’t pay the full amount, options to consider include cutting back hours, negotiating a temporary rate cut or setting up a delayed payment schedule. I’d suggest having open communication about your needs and constraints. Be creative and compassionate, and there’s a decent chance you might be able to work something out.
What if we’ve lost a job or are worried about our own job security?
MacCleery: Your family may not be able to afford to continue paying your caregiver, but you can offer to re-employ them if they are still available as soon as you have the means to.
Besser: Millions of Americans are worried about their jobs right now. Rightly so. Adding that stress to the demands of child care is a double whammy. Luckily, there are some laws that may protect working parents during the coronavirus outbreak. First and foremost, Congress recently passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which will take effect on April 2nd, and will help many (but not all) working parents.
The best thing people can do to protect their rights in the workplace is to consult with a qualified employment lawyer. Many will give free consultations. I know we are certainly doing that during this crisis.
What if I can’t pay? Are there other ways I can help?
MacCleery: You can also help them to seek employment with another family by writing a letter of recommendation and offering to be a referral. Many families are looking for care right now due to school and day care closures.
Weinstein: Get creative – terms are always negotiable. Or, offer to cover food costs for the next two weeks. Eventually, life will return to normal. Business and personal relationships will pick back up. What is said or done right now will have an impact on what those relationships look like down the road. That’s especially important when you’re talking about the person who cares for your children.