How to successfully negotiate your pay rate for a caregiving job

Nov. 27, 2020
How to successfully negotiate your pay rate for a caregiving job

There’s a troublingly antiquated stereotype out there that women struggle at negotiating. That's not really the truth: Harvard professor Hannah Riley Bowles, an expert on how gender affects pay negotiations, found that the problem is that women simply don’t negotiate pay nearly as often as men.

“Women are sometimes more hesitant than men to negotiate their pay because it's a trickier social situation for women,” Bowles says.

Women tend to be viewed negatively for negotiating while men aren’t.

“We expect women to be more focused on others than themselves, so it violates feminine ideals when women are making claim to higher pay,” Bowles says.

Her findings reveal that women are viewed positively if they advocate for others but for themselves — not so much. If you’re a caregiver, that likely rings true, regardless of gender: The nature of your job means putting others ahead of yourself. That said, remember that standing up for yourself means everyone is happier in the long run — and that includes ensuring that you make a living wage.

Knowing what you’re worth, preparing in advance and thoughtfully approaching negotiation can reduce negative perceptions and fears and make it easier to get paid the rate you deserve for a caregiver job. Before your next job interview, use these expert tips to ready yourself for a successful, fearless pay negotiation.

What to do before negotiations

Research market rates

Never go into a caregiver interview being unsure of what to charge.

“It’s important to know the market rates in your area,” says Sue Downey, a full-time nanny in Philadelphia and founder of the conference Nannypalooza. “You can’t just talk to one or two friends; you really have to talk to a wide variety of people and take into account the range people pay for the job you’re doing.”

Determine your bottom line

Next it’s time to calculate how low you will go before walking away, says Lora Brawley, a Seattle-based former nanny of 30 years who owns Nanny Care Hub.

“When I say bottom line, I define it as what you’re going to be happy with, not the bare minimum you have to have to pay your bills,” she says. “Because a lot of nannies do that. Then they’re really struggling once they get into the job.”

Decide on your range

As you figure out your bottom line, Brawley recommends deciding on a range, not just a set amount, as every job is different. She recommends choosing a $3 to $4 range — so, for example, $15 to $18 an hour.

“When you have a range, you have a better ability to negotiate depending upon what comes up in the interview,” she says. “Often, new information that you didn’t know from the beginning comes up,” like a child has special needs or there’s a new baby or a new puppy on the way.

Practice, practice, practice

Never go into a salary negotiation unprepared, says Cynthia Pong, a lawyer-turned-career coach in New York City.

“Plan out the conversation, outline how you want it to go and practice it with yourself and then with others,” she says.

Pong says it’s a learning process that gets easier, so she recommends practicing your negotiating skills in low-stakes situations, like when trying to get your kids to get ready for bed or when you’re given the wrong order at a restaurant.  

Consider other benefits to negotiate for

Downey says it’s a mistake to focus solely on your hourly rate since there are many other creative ways a family can compensate you. In case you can’t nab the rate you want, be prepared with a list of other benefits you can negotiate for to add to your employment package or contract. This may include:

  • Contributions to your health insurance, which saves both you and the family money since it’s pre-tax.

  • Guaranteed pay for a set number of hours.

  • More paid holidays or paid time off.

  • Contributions to tuition if you’re a student, which is non-taxable income.

Ask for an initial phone call

Some families require a screening interview by phone first, but if they don’t, request one, Brawley suggests. That way, you can see if it’s a good fit and if your pay range works for them up front.

After some initial conversation, Brawley says, “I tell them, ‘My range is $X to $Y an hour. Are you comfortable with that?’ If your range is higher than what they can pay, you need to know right then and there.”

Brawley says caregivers are often scared to bring this up, but they shouldn’t be.

“It doesn’t mean you’re a lesser caregiver or that you’re putting your money above your career or the care of kids,” she says. “It just means you need a living wage like everyone.”

Best ways to negotiate

Pay rate and benefits are usually discussed during the first in-person interview. By the time it comes up in conversation, you should already have a good idea of the scope of the job and what it will entail. With the prep work you’ve done, you should be able to have an open and honest conversation about pay.

Build yourself up before proposing a rate

If the family hasn’t suggested a rate, take advantage of this opportunity. You’re the expert, Pong says.

“You know about your work and everything that goes into it, so don’t forget to explain that,” she says. “They may think you just need to be a warm body there to make sure the child doesn’t hurt themself, but actually, no, a lot more is involved in providing quality care. Don’t assume that they know how much hard work it takes, so educate them about all the labor involved.”

She says you should then discuss what makes you special, your expertise and your experience.

“Do all this to build up to telling them what your rate is,” Pong says. “That will avoid any sticker shock reaction you might get.”

Make it clear you’re on the same team

Pong says it’s common for people interviewing for a job to feel powerless and view it as a zero-sum game, she says.

“Instead, think about it as more of a team effort: You are an expert that they’re relying on,” Pong says. “Rather than viewing it as me-versus-them, reframe it as you’re solving a problem and both working together toward a common goal, which is they get great care for their child from you.”

Bowles says to explain exactly how your skills and experience will make things better for their family. She suggests saying something like, “You could pay less for someone who brings less to the job, but I bring [XYZ],” which demonstrates that you know how to both advocate for the family and for yourself.

Ask what/how questions instead of why

If you’re told, “Sorry, the most we can pay is $X,” Pong recommends responding with a question like this:

  • How flexible is that?

  • How can we make this work?

  • What can we do?

“‘Why’ questions tend to make people defensive, and that’s what you don’t want,” Pong says.

She says every “why” question can be rephrased into a “what” or “how.” Instead of saying “Why can’t you do this?” she suggests saying, “What are the reasons why this isn’t possible?”

Don’t negotiate against yourself

Say you can only work 20 hours a week, but at the interview, the family says they’d like you for 30 hours. The ideal response is, “I can only work with you up to 20 hours” and leave it at that, Pong says.

Negotiating against yourself, she says, looks like this: “Well, I’m really looking for a 20-hour-a-week position, but if you really needed somebody, I probably could do up to 30.”

Instead of feeling the need to accommodate and conceding, Pong suggests. “Know what isn’t negotiable before you go in, and be firm and clear about it." 

"It’s very hard to simply say the sentence and then not say anything,” Pong explains — and why she says it’s so important to practice ahead of the interview. “Get comfortable with silence as a negotiating strategy," Pong explains. "Let them come back and say something.”

Don’t feel compelled to decide immediately

While you may feel the need to say yes right away, this isn’t always in your best interest, Pong says.

“We make mistakes when we feel like our back is against a wall,” she says. “Make sure that you’re supporting and advocating for yourself. If you need a couple days to think about it, just say, ‘Thank you so much for this conversation, but I have a lot to think about and this is important to me, so I really want to be able to give this the time and thought it requires.’”

Don’t commit yourself to a set timeframe if you can help it

If they ask how long you need, say, “Probably a few days, but I’ll let you know as soon as possible,” Pong recommends.

She says you should feel out the specific situation, but if the family does ask for a fast decision, consider asking, “How flexible is that?” and putting those negotiation skills to work by asking them to extend your decision time.

Don’t accept a rate you can’t afford

If the family suggests a lower rate than expected or says no to your proposed rate, proceed with caution: One of the mistakes caregivers make is feeling “they have to take whatever they can get instead of advocating for what they’re worth,” Downey says.

If you’re offered a rate that doesn’t meet your needs, she suggests filling in for the family while both of you continue to search for a better fit. While it’s fine to make compromises, she says, don’t go below your bottom line for the long term — and always be willing to walk away.

“Some people think, ‘It’s OK if I start lower — after they see how great I am, I’ll ask for a raise,’” Pong says. “But it’s actually a lot harder to do that. Don’t forfeit this great opportunity you have at the beginning.”

Downey says accepting the lower rate to start can work only if you truly can afford the lower rate and you get it in writing. “Say to a family, ‘I’ll start at this dollar amount, but I really want a few dollars more an hour, so let’s do this for six months and then evaluate. If I prove to you I’m worth it, you’ll agree to pay this. If not, then maybe we part ways,’” she explains. 

If the family agrees to this, it should be written in your contract. Also be cautious if you’re negotiating pay and learn that your minimum rate is the very maximum the family can pay.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to take a job where the family is struggling to pay you your max amount because it leaves you no place to go,” Downey says.

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

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