During her confirmation hearing on Jan. 19, Attorney General-designate Zoe Baird apologized for hiring two illegal aliens and for not paying Social Security taxes on their wages. Both actions violated immigration and tax laws.
Many U. S. families can't afford such a predicament. But the Internal Revenue Service reckons that of the approximately 2 million households that employ domestic workers, 1.5 million pay off the books, use illegal immigrants, or both. BUSINESS WEEK surveyed parents around the country and confirmed that the likes of Mr. French, the butler-cum-nanny of the '60s sitcom Family Affair, have nearly gone the way of the dinosaur.
Aaron Temin and his wife, Amy Abel, of Reston, Va., have signed up for their third au pair for 2-year-old Liya. "We ran through the costs and the aggravation of the standard alternatives: Somebody stays home, grandma moves in, you find a day-care center. We like having someone else in the house," Temin says.
All have been French speakers, obtained through the Brattleboro (Vt.) Experiment in International Living, which charges $3,000 to cover the au pairs' airfare and health insurance. The au pairs are paid $100 a week; each stays a year. "We estimate it costs $12,000 to $15,000 a year, when you include the utilities, extra food, etc.," he says. "But it's much more expensive if you hire a native-born worker, or a real, certified nanny.
"We'd be in bad shape if we hired an illegal. I'm a technical director at a computer firm that does work for the Defense Dept. And my wife works for the government as an analyst at the Congressional Research Service. It wouldn't save us a whole lot of money, and it would cause us a whole lot of hassle. That's why I think Zoe Baird was just stupid. What people do in their personal life doesn't necessarily affect their conduct in professional life. But we can afford to work within the laws that protect us. She certainly could have, too."
A Chicago North Shore woman hired Graciella, an El Salvadoran, as a cleaning lady about seven years ago. "I just assumed she was illegal. They are willing to do work that nobody else is willing to do and at decent wages."
Graciella received $50 for about five hours a week. Did her employer pay Social Security? "Oh, sure I did! Just like I reported all my tips when I was a waitress."
A commercial real estate broker in Manhattan has employed a Philippine woman since her 4-year-old daughter was born. The nanny, a former schoolteacher in the U. S. on an expired tourist visa, is paid $275 weekly for living in five days a week. "The fact that she was illegal was never a consideration," says the mother. "What matters is that my daughter loves her and she's responsible--she has not missed a day of work in four years." Such conscientiousness, she feels, is lacking in native-born workers. "I believe in giving Americans a chance, and many are out of work now. But they think being a nanny is below them. I couldn't find an American without an attitude if I tried."
For months, Lori and John Golden of Potomac, Md., searched for live-in help to care for daughter Rebecca, now nine months. "We contacted a lot of organizations, especially religious ones," says Lori, national advertising-sales manager for the Townsend Group, a publishing consultant. "One gave us the name of a 21-year-old Soviet Jewish emigre, Jina. She was here legally, applying for political asylum. She sounded too good to be true: She had been a medical student. She spoke five languages. She was totally charming and charismatic.
"But she turned out to be a disaster. She was supposed to do housework but couldn't even boil water. She chattered endlessly on the phone, even when the baby was crying. After three weeks, she took a phone call--in Russian--and said she had to leave for an immigration hearing in one hour. We haven't seen her since." Golden adds: "She left us with a $350 phone bill. She stole medical textbooks, shampoo, soap. After that, I vowed we'd only work through accredited organizations." With Habba, a new Icelandic au pair, "we play by the rules."
Catherine, who lives in New Jersey and is a Nynex Corp. vice-president, has been hiring illegal aliens as nanny/housekeepers for the past five years. She wanted to avoid agencies because "their fees were very high, $1,000 to $2,000, and there were no guarantees that they would replace someone who didn't work out."
But her own efforts brought trouble, too. A newspaper ad led her to a Jamaican woman for $125 a week, plus room and board. She stayed a few weeks, then left for Christmas and never returned. Next, Cathy hired another illegal alien from Jamaica, who had a Social Security card because she had worked at a burger joint. Although Cathy and her husband consulted an immigration lawyer and offered to sponsor her, she, too, packed up one weekend for good.
After raising the weekly salary to $150, Catherine hired a series of women from Poland, all of whom eventually returned as their visas expired. Catherine pays her employees in cash on Fridays and doesn't withhold Social Security. "An attorney told me I should be paying minimum wage, even though I provide room and board," she says. "But I couldn't afford to go to $200 a week. However, I don't take the child-care deduction on my income tax, either."
ew York City journalist Robin Kamen made it a point to hire a legal alien as babysitter for her child. It wasn't easy, "especially in New York, where the work force for this kind of labor is 99% illegal. The agencies are supposed to send someone who's legal, but even they don't." Of 40 responses to an ad placed in an Indian newspaper, only one applicant, a woman from Guyana, had her green card. She gets paid $240 for a four-day week, out of which she takes home $200. "I'm probably one of the very few people who do pay on the books," says Robin. "It's an incredible hassle. It took forever just to get the right forms from Social Security."
The immigration laws, she says, need to evolve to keep up with society's needs. She thinks there should be more temporary visas issued and "sponsorships that made it legal for foreigners to work while waiting for the green card."
Irwin Lublin can identify with Zoe Baird. In the '70s, the Los Angeles psychologist had a live-in Mexican maid, who cared for his youngest child. The family suspected she was an illegal; certainly, he says, she didn't pay taxes. Lublin did, claiming her compensation and room and board--$100 a week--as part of his child-and-dependent-care tax credit. In an audit, the IRS claimed he owed Social Security payments on the maid's wages and attached his bank account.
To Lublin, it still seems a conundrum: Why pay Social Security for someone who doesn't have a Social Security number? The money can't accrue toward her retirement; it just goes into the general coffers. "It's probably unconstitutional," he fumes, "but it's legal."