Desperate for day care, legal or not Debacle over Baird's hired help highlights headaches of parents

January 24, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

In the 1 1/2 years she's been a single working mother, Christin Spain has been through three nannies. In her search, there have been women she couldn't afford to hire -- but not for the reason you might think.

One woman who applied for the job wanted to be paid "under the table" because she lived in a subsidized housing complex and didn't want her rent to go up. But Ms. Spain, the manager of a Radio Shack store in York, Pa., needed to do everything by the book -- pay employment and Social Security taxes -- so that she could claim the year-end tax credit for child care that helps her make ends meet. Even then, there are months in which the 29-year-old mother of three has trouble paying the bills, "and it's not for lack of trying, and it's not because we eat steak."

The admission by Zoe Baird, former attorney general nominee, that she hired an illegal alien to care for her infant son has reopened the debate on day care in the United States and highlighted the problems that Christine Spain and others confront when they search for it.

Ms. Baird's $507,000 salary turned the debate into a discussion on class. Her argument that she had acted as a "mother" and in the best interest of her child triggered conflicting emotions among many parents, those who work and those who don't.

Across the country, parents who employ the wives of Chinese students, Central American refugees, Irish colleens or Jamaican grandmothers to care for their children shuddered at the thought of being caught. Lawyers and accountants who pay the requisite taxes for their day-care providers to protect their professional licenses complained that some providers won't take the job unless it's "under the table."

Even parents who want to follow the letter of the law find that the search for reliable day care is a struggle. Once you find it, you work like crazy to keep it.

Joanne Giza, for one, was pleased that Ms. Baird withdrew her nomination as attorney general. Unlike many mothers, Mrs. Giza said, Ms. Baird had options that were available to her because of her six-figure salary.

"She could have well afforded to go to a reputable nanny placement service that's within the $300-a-week range. And most women are not in that position," said Mrs. Giza, editor of Baltimore's Child, a monthly Baltimore publication on parenting issues. "People at the other end of the economic spectrum . . . do all sorts of things to piece together their day-care situation. Not everybody pays Social Security. Not everybody pays taxes. We all know that."

But Mrs. Giza said, "When you have the option that's the right way, go the right way."

Jacqueline F. Clark, president of a "Choice Nanny" franchise in Columbia, said services like hers provide professional working women "like Ms. Baird" with legal, high-quality day care.

"I think a lot of professional women hire illegals because they can't find American workers. It's hard for professional women to find quality child care, and agencies are still getting their act together," Ms. Clark said. "If there was a great nanny agency in Hartford [in Connecticut, where Ms. Baird worked], Ms. Baird would have gone and gotten herself a legal nanny."

Ms. Clark's agency, which has offices from New York to Florida, provides nannies who work 50 hours a week, have clean criminal and driving records, and excellent references -- a process that can save a working mother 40 hours of recruiting time, Ms. Clark said.

The cost? About $12,000 a year in salary, $1,200 for the agency fee, another $1,200 for government taxes and fees, Ms. Clark said.

"If you have two or three kids, it's very cost-effective," she said.

One 42-year-old Severna Park mother in search of a nanny for her six children said yesterday she had gone the agency route before.

"You can do the exact same thing yourself by putting an ad in the paper and save yourself thousands of dollars," said the mother, who like many did not want to be identified by name. "The bottom line is you don't know how this person is until they are working in your home."

Another woman, a single mother of two from Howard County, has hired Americans as nannies in the past and paid the requisite taxes. But this last time, she hired an illegal alien.

"The reason many women are using undocumented [workers] -- and there are many that do -- is not that they are saving money, but they find a better work ethic and a greater willingness to do domestic-type work, which most Americans won't," the working mother said. "You have greater longevity and someone who prizes the job. It's a real myth to think you can save money. Foreigners demand as much if not more as Americans for the same work."

This woman described the day-care scene as "a jungle."

"I had a nanny stolen from me," the woman said. "It's been harder than labor and delivery 100 times over."

And the single mother contended that the number of undocumented aliens in the Baltimore-Washington area was "astounding."

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