How caregivers can — and should — earn a living wage

Jan. 13, 2021
How caregivers can — and should — earn a living wage

As a professional caregiver, whether you care for children or help a senior, you do critical work. Many of you even complete trainings and obtain professional certifications in order to excel at your job. Yet many families, and society as a whole, don’t reward caregivers as a high-value profession — meaning you may struggle to make a wage on which you can live and thrive.

The minimum wage is the legally mandated hourly minimum an employer is required to pay you, but experts agree it’s not enough to live on, and it’s common for caregivers to work for less. The wage workers actually need to make ends meet and support their families is called a living wage.

Here’s how to determine how much you should be getting paid for a living wage and ways to advocate for the wage you need to thrive as a professional caregiver.

How to figure out what you should be paid

Know the bare minimum you’re required to be paid

There is a minimum hourly wage every worker in the U.S. is entitled to make. Make sure you’re not working for less.

  • Never accept less than $7.25 per hour. That’s the federal minimum wage, so it’s illegal for an employer to pay you less than that amount per hour.

  • Check your city and state’s minimum wage. If your city or state has a higher minimum wage, you’re entitled to that higher amount, which currently goes as high as $13.69 per hour in some states.

Know the cost of living in your area

According to Hand in Hand, the Domestic Employers Network, a living wage for child care providers or home attendants in a metropolitan area should be at least $15 per hour. However, a living wage varies greatly depending on location since the cost of living is different everywhere. These tools can help you see the estimated pay rates and the living wage in your area.

Know how much you need to make a living

If you want to figure out what exactly constitutes a living wage for you, try this family budget calculator from the Economic Policy Institute. It reveals how much you need to make monthly or annually to pay for all your essentials, which informs what you’d need to earn as a living wage. Once you know what you need to make, it’s easier to narrow down job opportunities by pay, and you know what amount you need to negotiate for in job interviews.

How to advocate for a fair, living wage

You deserve a fair wage, even if our society doesn’t recognize it yet. Here are some ways to advocate to earn a living wage as a caregiver.

1. Know your self-worth (or fake it until you do)

“I think many nannies and babysitters are simply overlooked and underpaid because in people’s eyes, we ‘just babysit,’” says Sineca Williams, who is a full-time caregiver for several families in Clarksville, Tennessee. “In reality, we are their second mothers and more to those kiddos while their parents are away. People want to pay little, but expect top-notch.”

Williams says appropriate nanny pay is a hot topic in the child care industry right now, as many caregivers are tired of being underpaid and undervalued.

“When I first started, I let families take advantage of me and my time,” Williams says. “If they couldn’t afford my rate, I’d lower my hourly rate just so I could keep them around. But I know my self-worth and I know that I am not on my phone during babysitting or being an unreliable unprofessional babysitter.”

Now, she’s not afraid to turn down a job if the family can’t pay what she needs to make a living wage, but she says it took a while to get there.

2. Educate potential employers

To help nannies advocate for better pay, Stella Reid, a former nanny who currently provides nanny training, recommends talking about yourself as a career nanny.

“Explain that this isn’t a hobby,” she says, and she suggests telling employers, “This is my career. I’m not just making money to pay for a vacation for my children because my husband makes a phenomenal amount of money. This is my career.”

Employers of domestic workers, whether nannies for children or home health aides for seniors, should also understand that paying a good wage is more than just the right thing to do, says Caitlin Connolly, director of social insurance at the National Employment Law Project.

“If domestic employers are basing their pay on [minimum wage], they should understand that they are paying poverty-level wages,” which can result in many workers being forced to rely on public assistance programs, she says.

“I think it’s absolutely critical that when we’re talking about quality of care, turnover or needing to attract and retain people in this work, it’s very often as simple as looking at wages,” Connolly says. “People need to make enough money to meet their needs. This is one of those very intimate relationships that really requires that investment. It’s so important that people make the connection between the quality of care and the wages that they’re paying.”

3. Learn how to negotiate

Over the last 10 years, Nathalie Novak, a nanny in Roseville, Minnesota, says she’s had to learn how to negotiate and advocate for herself.

“I’ve really had to fight for being paid fairly for my years of service and my credentials,” Novak says. “I’ve really had to learn to be assertive for myself over the years. It wasn’t always easy, and there are still some people who want to lowball you. You just have to stick to what you know you’re worth.”

4. Invest in yourself

Reid also suggests that you invest in yourself with certifications and trainings so you bring more to the table than just experience, which can set them apart as a professional and result in better wages.

5. Know when to walk away

Employers willing to pay living wages are out there, all of our experts say — it just might take more time and effort to find them.

If a family can’t afford to pay you what you need to make ends meet, don’t be afraid to walk away, Reid says.

“Nannies tend to be very good about taking care of everyone else and not themselves,” she says. “I don’t want somebody to be a martyr to the expense of their own family life. This isn’t about demanding something. It’s about finding a win-win for a family and a nanny so it’s copacetic.”

Williams says about 75% of the families she speaks to have absolutely no problem paying her hourly rate.

“I explain to them my credentials, qualifications, extensive experience and references,” she says. “If they are not willing to pay that, then I simply thank them for inquiring and tell them to have a good day.”

Learning to negotiate and advocate yourself can be uncomfortable at first, but it gets easier and it can ensure you earn the living wage you need to care for yourself and your own family.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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