The Nanny State Leaves Nannies Alone, Ctd

by Chris Bodenner

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A reader writes:

There is a grain of truth in the Forbes article you linked to.  But it leaves something out.  Yes, whether an occupation is licensed depends to some extent on the organizational power of the incumbents.  But here’s a more important reason not to license nannies: What a rational person is looking for in a nanny is not knowledge or training, but aspects of character – kindness and responsibility, mostly.  No one is in a better position to asses those traits than the potential employer (by personal observation and by checking references).

The situation with respect to doctors is a little different.  The only people capable of assessing the capabilities of brain surgeons are … other brain surgeons.  So unless we are going to let anyone with a hacksaw and power drill set up in that business, we don’t have a choice but to let the doctors regulate themselves (despite whatever abuses that might entail).

Another reader:

I read your post this morning and found it so hard to believe that someone concluded from the market for nannies that all occupational licensing is a sham, I had to click through. But indeed that is what Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry says. Now that I’ve picked my jaw up off the ground, I have to respond.

I have two kids, now 13 and 10, and I hired several full-time nannies during the years they were younger.  I also am a law professor who teaches, among other things, employment law and classes on work and family. So I know something about all of these issues both personally and professionally. To take Gobry’s big point first:

There are large and obvious differences between hiring a nanny and hiring other kinds of professionals. For example, expertise. I am an expert on my children, what I want them to be fed, their basic schedule, approaches to discipline, etc. And while hiring a nanny to spend hours alone with your tiny baby is incredibly stressful – and I sympathize with Gobry and his wife on this – the reality is that the employer in this situation is pretty well able to monitor the employee, even in the absence of a nannycam (which I never used).

Indeed, the fact that the consumers in this market – the parents – are relatively well-educated and well-off, and are particularly well-educated and well-off relative to the people they are hiring, means that they have the resources to do the relevant monitoring, both before and after the hire.  In my opinion, the two most important things I do in hiring a nanny/sitter is (a) check references and (b) take them for a test drive.  (The test drive is not so much that I think I will learn a lot about their driving abilities – although I have ruled some people out because they were so clearly inexperienced behind the wheel – but because while they are concentrating on driving safely, they let down their guard a little bit and I get a better sense of who they are.)

All of this takes time – a lot of it – and other resources, such as the ability to communicate effectively with former employers, including the ability to answer the phone when they call me back – a luxury many working people do not have.  In other words, I am remarkably unpersuaded that that the fact that parents like Gobry and me have not chosen to use our social and political clout to require professional licensing for nannies tells us anything one way or the other about professional licensing in other contexts.

In fact, the power disparities in the market for nannies is unusual in other ways as well.  When I was hiring full-time nannies, agencies routinely told me that they literally could not send me candidates who were both legal to work in the US and willing to have me do Social Security and Medicare withholding, both of which are legal requirements for household employees.  (Do not assume that my desire to hire only legally employable folks reflects my approval of our immigration laws.)  Because the work of full-time nannies is so badly paid and because many of the arrangements are illegal, the consumers in this context have way, way more power, both economically and politically, than the nannies themselves.  The consumers like it that way.  Why would they want to encourage professional licensing under these circumstances?

Think about other benefits like overtime (not necessarily legally required for household employees), vacation pay, and paid sick leave.  Most nannies do not get these benefits, and yet most people who have nannies would never take a full-time job that did not provide for paid-time off.   (For the record, my husband and I provided all of these benefits to our full-time nannies.  And it really bothered me that I could not figure out how to provide health insurance – something I probably should have tried harder to do.)

None of this is to suggest that I think all other professional licensing is appropriate or necessary.  Gobry is right that at least one effect of such licensing is to create barriers to entry that protect those already in the profession and keep prices up, and in some situations those may be the only meaningful things that professional licensing does.  (Indeed, there are some pretty good arguments about this with respect to some of the kinds of work that lawyers currently have monopoly power over.)  But to draw his absolute conclusion about professional licensing generally is bizarre.  Does he expect to be able to do what he and his wife did in hiring a nanny when they are faced with, for example, (a) a plumbing or electrical emergency in their home; (b) a legal or medical problem that must be addressed right away; or (c) an urgent need for a locksmith, or an auto mechanic?  And even if he would be willing to do that, does he think that everyone has the time and resources to do so? Is he willing to trust that all hospitals and nursing homes and drug stores, for example, would vet their nursing and medical and pharmacy staffs well enough?

Obviously, professional licensing is no panacea, but in situations where the consumers have less expertise than nanny employers do, have less market power and other resources, have significant time constraints, and/or have to rely on a middleman to do the actual hiring and monitoring, there is a lot to be said for some minimum standards.  Just like there’s a lot to be said for some meaningful regulation of entities like banks.