Nannies Tell the Truth About Working During the Coronavirus

“Now that I’m out of isolation, I’m taking care of the whole family unit.”

Illustration: Patrick Leger
Illustration: Patrick Leger

“We are like items to them; they can’t go without us.”

I’m a live-in nanny for an ultrahigh-net-worth Manhattan family. I have a degree in early-childhood education and decades of professional nanny experience. The family I work for is pretty high profile. These people could afford to keep a full staff on furlough for months on end with benefits, but they choose not to. They’ve had people quit on them because of safety reasons. They told them, “Okay. Well, then, you’re not getting a reference. How dare you let us down.” But most of the people who they employ are foreign-born like me and would have a hard time sticking up for themselves.

During the week, I stay with them at their outrageously large Hamptons house, so of course they need an outrageously large staff. There wasn’t really a conversation about moving up to the Hamptons with them; it was basically just “This is how it’s going to be.” For the first time since working there, I had a sort of Are you kidding me? reaction. Normally, I’m a “yes, ma’am” type of person. And that quickly escalated to her screaming that I had better come in or else. But then she was like, “I’ll make it worth your while.” I don’t know if that’s going to come to fruition.

There’s so many people coming in and out of the house. There’s a sports coach for the kids, and he goes to other people’s houses and works with their kids, too. And then they have the chef that goes to the grocery store every day. There’s people who come in to do hair blow-dries a few days a week, a manicurist, a personal trainer. The other housekeepers and nannies are like, This is really ridiculous. They haven’t asked any of the workers to stop coming in. Why don’t they care? One of my co-workers, she has just been washing the clothes of the kids nonstop every time they come in contact with a new person. And if I’ve ordered anything on Amazon, like school supplies, I quarantine the boxes in the pool house for two days. I get met with a lot of rolled eyes from my employers.

They don’t seem to be worried, even though when I started coming into the Hamptons, I had a cough. The dad seems to be a germophobe. He’s freaking out all the time about my kids washing their hands, but if we’re FaceTiming someone and I’m coughing in the background, he’ll say, “Oh, it’s just the nanny.”

They have been sending me and my co-workers back to Manhattan on weekends in a private car together. But the driver doesn’t work exclusively with them, so there’s other people that go in this car at other times. One of my co-workers has a big family, they’re elderly, and also one of my co-workers’ husbands is really sick and is one of the delicate people that should not be exposed at all. Our employers probably don’t even know she has a family. It’s not one of the things they would wonder about.

The dad sits on the couch all day on the phone doing business. But then he has the gall to tell people, “Oh, it’s so hard being with my kids. They’re doing all this homeschooling.” And I’m like, You haven’t done one thing with that! It’s me! They’ve never taken care of their own kids for more than an hour.

One of my colleagues, whenever she is in the city, has to shop around for specialty items for them: things the chef needs that they can’t find in the Hamptons, and obviously they can’t use any old kind of toilet paper; they have to use their nice toilet paper, so she has to go to a few different shops to try and find it. There’s lots of specific items that they have become accustomed to and that they can’t go without. Just like the people. We are like items to them; they can’t go without us.

“A lot of them had to go into work, and that’s one of the reasons why I think so many of them lost their lives.”

I’m from St. Vincent. I came to this country about 14 years ago. Before the coronavirus, I was taking care of a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old. Then when I went in on a Monday morning, the bosses, who are both lawyers, said they were going to stay home and they would contact me to let me know what’s going on. I took it for granted because a lot of other nannies, their bosses are sending their money to their homes. But then they paid me the first week, and that’s it. I had to file unemployment.

I put my everything into taking care of these kids. So at least parents should see that and appreciate it without having to remind them. This is a crisis. And if it wasn’t for this crisis, I would be at work. Still, I’m not going to reach out to them, because why did other employers find it in their heart to pay me? I cook for an old guy in Manhattan, just two days a week, and he has sent money to me three times right now. So why should I have to call them and ask them to pay me? I will never do that, believe me. They aren’t stupid. I have a 14-year-old son. I have to pay rent. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. Now I just try and follow instructions and stay home. Everybody wants to live, so you just have to comply with the rules.

My very good friend of about 35 years, Jenna Layne, passed away from the coronavirus. She was working as a nanny on the East Side of Manhattan. We were really, really close. She was one of the most beautiful people you could ever meet. A lot of nannies from the Caribbean have died. We have a nannies group, and they would post the people. It’s about ten to 15 from the Caribbean. A lot of them had to go into work, and that’s one of the reasons why I think so many of them lost their lives. We know that money is important, but I would have really not gone into work. Because if you have the money and you lose your life, what sense does it make?

“Now I’m seeing them be real people.”

I grew up in Chicago and got a bachelor’s degree in child development. I was a nanny there for three years after college before moving to New York. The family I work with now has a beach house in New Jersey, so they decided to go there. They offered for me to bring my fiancé and dog and cat and stay with them because they have the space. But my fiancé has to work in the city, so he stayed home.

It turns out my employers actually own multiple houses next to each other, and they have their college friends staying in the other houses, as well as the kid’s aunt and uncle, so there’s about eight of us in this little complex. I knew they were very well off — they live in a very fancy building that has celebrities in it. When they said they had a beach house, it’s like, Okay, lots of people in their neighborhood have beach houses. But then they’ll be like, “Oh, our family also owns houses all over the country.”

I feel like a lot of times, they’ll ask my opinion about things, like, “What do you think: Should we open up the pool?” The uncle really wanted to and then everyone else was like, “It’s kind of early.” And I was like, “I’ve never had a pool. I would have opened up the pool three days ago, and I would swim every day.” They just laughed.

They’re buying me everything I need to be here, food and toiletries, because it’s nothing to them. Sometimes we’ll all go online shopping together, and they’ll be like, “Let’s all buy Lululemon pants together.” But other times they’re like, “Let’s see if Rolex is having a sale.” And I’m like, Oh, okay, I’m out of the conversation now.

It’s a bit awkward because we wouldn’t normally see each other in this light. Like, it’s Friday night — is it weird if we all drink wine together? I’ve been kind of looking at the line of what’s acceptable and what’s not. Because they’re still my bosses. I’m definitely more weird about it than they are. One night they were making margaritas, and they were like, “Come drink with us. You can have 100 margaritas if you want!” But I don’t want to have 100 margaritas with my bosses. Them and their college friends are always like, “Let’s play drinking games!” It’s nice that they included me, but I feel so uncomfortable. What if I get drunk and embarrass myself?

Now I’m seeing them be real people. They’ll be telling college stories, and it never even occurred to me that they, like, got drunk off boxed wine in college, because I just thought they were fancy rich people. I just assume if your parents have money, you don’t have to work in college, but they are like, “No, we all used to be bartenders. That’s why we love service people.”

They’re very aware of not infecting other people. They’re not going out and stuff like that, but that is their only worry. Other people are worried that they’re going to be homeless or they’re going to starve. It kind of makes me upset because I feel like a lot of people are about to be homeless when it would take $1,000 to pay their rent and then there are people that are like, “I’m really bored. I should get the boats out of storage.” If you have money, you have no fear. You’re not afraid of anything.

“Some people, in difficult times, they want to abuse you.”

Illustration: Patrick Leger

I’ve been a nanny for 17 years. In 2018, I started with a family with a baby. Then the coronavirus came. I take the train, and when I see the situation is very bad, I say to myself, I’m not going to take the train anymore because it’s dangerous. I can’t get sick. I’m 53 years old — I have to stay home. I live in the Bronx, and they live in Battery Park. I told her I don’t want to take the train because it’s dangerous. I told her I’m afraid.

My children’s grandma on the other side passed away from the coronavirus. My daughter, in my country, had the coronavirus. She’s good now, thank God. I’m from the Dominican Republic, though I’ve been in America for 22 years. I don’t have work documentation. I don’t have health insurance. She told me, “If you’re not working, you can’t get paid.” I said, “It’s okay. I prefer to be healthy and not sick, because then I can find someone else to hire me.” She ended up paying me half because she said she felt bad, though I told her she didn’t have to.

Then last week she called me and offered, “Oh, we’re going to rent a house in upstate New York. You can come stay with us.” I said, “I can’t because I have my grandchild living with me.” She said, “Oh, we can bring him. He can have his own room.” So we packed food and clothes, and her husband came and picked us up and drove us there.

Once I was there, I asked her, since I’m live-in now, how much you want to pay me? I normally make $800 a week. She said she wanted to charge me $300 a week out of my paycheck because my grandson was with me, because she said “we’re going to give your grandson food.” And I said, “I don’t want you giving nothing to my grandson. I told you I’d buy him food. I’d never think you’d want to charge me $300 a week.”

Then on Sunday last week, they said now we’re going to go to the Poconos, because they had bad internet at the first house. I thought about it and I said, “I’m not going to go. Because you want to squeeze me.” I told them, “Please take me home.” She said, “You don’t want to work anymore?” I said, “No, I just want to go home.”

I was working hard. When I went downstairs at night, I had to cook because I had to feed my grandchild. Yet everyone ate the food that I made. I did the dishes. She treated me like her housekeeper when I’m supposed to be her nanny. I want to explain this to you, because some people, in difficult times, they want to abuse you.

I told her she had to be careful about how she talks to me, because her child is crazy about me, she loves me. And I said, “You know how I treat your kids? I want you to treat me like that.”

“In this profession, other peoples’ needs and wants come before your own.”

Myself and the parents, we have excellent communication. We are very transparent with one another, and we’ve always said if anybody in the house does not feel well, we will let each other know. So a few weeks ago, I found out that the friends that I had close contact with had tested positive. I told the parents and got in touch with my doctor and quarantined myself.

I’m living on the property. I have a bedroom, bathroom, closets, and a kitchen area to myself, and lots of windows with sunshine and fresh air. They have a very large home in a suburb of Connecticut. We made sure I had fresh linens and toilet paper and fresh meals and my strong cup of coffee in the morning. They really went above and beyond.

Now that I’m out of isolation, I’m taking care of the whole family unit, where before it was primarily the children. So making sure everybody has what they need, what they want. Is everybody getting a workout in the gym? Do I need to make sure the children are out of the house if the parents need to work? I’m cooking for the whole family.

In this profession, other peoples’ needs and wants come before your own. I think to have that mind-set doesn’t come naturally for a lot of people in the service profession. But for me, I have to put them first. It’s my responsibility. I actually initiated the conversation earlier this week to see if I need to adjust anything I’m doing since we’re going to be there for the long haul. We discussed the other workers who come into the home — if there’s a point where they can come in, what that will look like. And I said, “Look, I can pick up a mop.” I need to maintain flexibility in this job role.

The other night, the mom said, “I’m closing up the kitchen for the night. Do you need a cup of tea?” I said, “Yeah, that would be great.” And then I texted back and said, “I really feel guilty. I’m supposed to be taking care of you.” And she replied back, “Now it’s my turn to take care of you.”

*This article appears in the April 27, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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