In-house solutions to childcare dilemma

It’s costly and is a very big undertaking if done properly – but having the kids cared for at home is ideal for some

No bundling small children out of the house early in the morning – for many in-house childcare is the best solution

No bundling small children out of the house early in the morning – for many in-house childcare is the best solution

Tue, Oct 15, 2013, 01:00

No bundling small children out of the house early in the morning; no breakneck dash to the crèche before it closes; no pretending children are well when they’re not . . . Most working parents lucky enough to have a happy in-house solution to the childcare dilemma swear by it.

It ranges from the elite-sounding “nanny” – professional but expensive – to an au pair, who is cheap but not intended for full-time childcare. (We’re leaving stay-at-home parents or unpaid relatives aside for this article.)

However the in-house carer is not for everybody. Full-time nannies should be paid at least €500-€600 a week so cost rules it out for many – although with two or more young children it may be no more than crèche fees.

Some parents admit they couldn’t bear their child getting overly attached to another “mother” figure. And, with an au pair, even if you have a spare room and don’t mind a “stranger” living in, placements will always be relatively short.

Being responsible for selecting the one, right person to whom you will entrust your child is daunting.

You can go it alone, or pay for the services of a nanny or au pair agency that will already have done interviews and background checks on qualifications, criminal record, referees, etc.

When Teresa Boardman of recruitment agency Parenting Solutions is selecting candidates to offer clients, she always looks for somebody who has a real desire to work as a nanny. They must have formal qualifications and two years’ experience or at least four years’ experience and an up-to-date first-aid course.

“For me it is all about passion – I know this person is still going to be looking after children in 10 to 15 years’ time.” The agency matches possible candidates with families’ needs and she recommends parents interview at least two, even if they really like the first one.

She would advise any family to interview a candidate twice – the first time without the children and the second one with the children present, to see how she interacts with them.

Like most agencies, Parenting Solutions offers a sample nanny contract to guide parents. (It also places au pairs and other childcare professionals such as night nurses.) Towards the end of the first three months of a new hiring, Boardman will visit the home to see how the nanny has settled in and make sure both sides are happy

If it is not working out, “we would give the family a refund or change the nanny during a period of up to six months”. But she would hope that, with her support, any teething problems could be sorted.

Christine, a Co Clare mother of two children aged five and three, says finding the right childcare has been the most stressful aspect of being a parent. A crèche was working out well for the older child but when the younger one started at six-months-old, she kept getting sick.

“Every day I was dropping her in, I was seeing other parents dropping in sick children with medicine bottles; they couldn’t take time off work so were leaving sick children to be minded.” Her baby’s immune system couldn’t cope with the constant exposure to bugs.

“It was an awful time; she got pneumonia four times and almost died with septicaemia,” she says. With 10 admissions to hospital within a year, Christine had to take leave from work and vowed never to put her youngest back into the crèche.

She tried an au pair next, spending months looking for the “right one” before choosing a 30-year-old teacher who wanted to come here to improve her English. Her CV was “amazing”, they Skyped several times, but now she says: “I should have known she was the wrong one as she never once asked about the kids during the interview process.”

She lasted five days – walking out when Christine asked her to interact with the children more, rather than being on the computer all day.

“I was so distraught my neighbour offered to mind our children until we could find somebody to replace the au pair.”

Christine was overwhelmed by the number of applicants after she advertised for a nanny and found it hard saying no – “I am no Alan Sugar! ” – but her advice is go with your gut instinct. She found a woman but, as it turned out, her neighbour had become so fond of the children she wanted to continue – much to the delight of the family.

The thought of sorting tax and other employer liabilities “terrified” Christine, so she is very happy to pay an accountant to look after all that for an annual fee of €500.

Christine says she could not have continued working if she wasn’t happy with her childcare and she knows how lucky she is to have found somebody who is perfect for them.

“I hug her every day – and even bought her a Mary Poppins T-shirt.”

Brenda is a Dublin mother of one child, aged four, and is on her third au pair – “two great and one not so great”. She used a childminder before that and had no complaints but they were paying double the €500 a month, including babysitting, that they are paying now – although grocery bills have gone up. It’s daunting at first, until you figure out what exactly you want from your au pair, she says.

“You need to find someone that will be good with the kids and also fit in with you and your family as you have to live with them. I usually look for girls who have some qualification in childcare/education or some direct experience looking after children.”

There is the added benefit of some house-cleaning and her current au pair is teaching her daughter not only some basic Spanish but also music, as she teaches violin back home.

“It’s definitely more difficult for adults to adjust to the situation but kids seem to just get on with it,” she remarks.

Janice Walshe looked into the possibility of having somebody come into her home after the Prime Time A Breach of Trust documentary last May. Her two children were in another centre operated by one of the chains featured.

As an associate solicitor with the Dublin firm Byrne Wallace, she was better positioned than most to weigh up the legal requirements, quite apart from trying to find the right person. She believes some agencies don’t give parents enough information or warnings about the implications.

“When you are having a nanny, a childminder or whatever you want to call it, coming into your own home, you are in all likelihood becoming an employer,” she points out.

You have legal obligations as an employer and it’s a big undertaking if done properly, says Walshe. But if you do it on the black market, you are potentially exposing yourself to greater legal and tax issues down the line if, say, you and the nanny fall out and she brings an unfair dismissal claim.

Usually in these situations, she explains, the employer is seen as having a greater responsibility for making sure the situation is lawful.

The main points to consider, whether you are doing it on your own or with the help of an agency, include:

Contract of employment

Not a legal obligation, but it is advisable, to avoid misunderstandings. However, as the employer you have to provide, within two months, a signed statement setting out basic terms and conditions, such as salary, how often it is paid, hours to be worked and provisions for sick leave, overtime and any form of paid leave.

Register with Revenue
You are responsible for deducting PAYE and PRSI from your nanny’s salary, so you need to register as an employer. This, along with returns and payment, can be done very easily using Revenue’s online system. However, for an annual fee, you might prefer to do it through an agent, who will also look after the payslips you are obliged to provide.

Work permit
If you’re hiring a non-EU national, you have to make sure she is legally allowed to be employed here.

A full-time nanny will be entitled to annual leave of four working weeks, as well as days in lieu for any bank holidays worked. If you take the nanny on holidays with you – no matter how desirable the destination – it is still her working time and she continues to accrue leave, Walshe points out.

Maternity leave
The idea of your child’s nanny having a baby of her own is probably one you don’t want to countenance but it does happen and of course she has the right to return to the job afterwards. You will have to find a replacement for the 26 weeks’ statutory leave and the additional, optional 16 weeks’ if she takes them. She will be entitled to State maternity benefit; you choose whether or not to top that up. You cannot terminate the employment during any of that leave.

Unfair dismissal
If you want to dismiss somebody who has been with you for more than a year, that person is entitled to bring a claim to the Employment Appeals Tribunal if she believes she was dismissed unfairly, Walshe advises. (She can bring an action after less than a year if dismissed in unusual circumstances, such as pregnancy.)

It highlights the importance of having an agreed probationary period during which any dissatisfaction should be addressed or the contract terminated. If problems arise after that, it is essential to go through the process of warnings and disciplinary meetings and “that can be very difficult in a private home setting”, she says.

The Garda Central Vetting Unit only provides employment vetting for organisations registered with the unit. Agencies get their candidates vetted but you can’t do this on your own, so it is important to check references and qualifications carefully.

When your family no longer needs the nanny, you are obliged to pay statutory redundancy if she has been with you more than two years. That equates to two weeks’ pay for every year of service, plus one week’s pay, and the State no longer gives a rebate for any of it.

In the end, Walshe decided not to change to in-house childcare. But the main reason they stuck with the crèche was that their children seemed very happy, rather than being put off by what hiring a nanny would entail.

As with any childcare option, it is what works for you and your family that matters most.

*Some names have been changed

Home and away: when is an au pair not an au pair?

The “live-out au pair” is becoming increasingly common in the Irish childcare market but it is a contradiction in terms, as it is far from the traditional arrangement of a young person from abroad living as part of the family in return for help with childcare and light housework.

So is the term being used to cover the paying of unjustifiably low wages on the black market?

The traditional understanding of an au pair is pretty antiquated at this stage, says Cormac Maher, the owner of where “live-out au pair” is the most common position being offered and sought. While the title may not be correct, it is a favoured option, he reports, particularly in urban areas, with a lot of “au pairs” commuting from Dublin city centre to the suburbs on a daily basis.

“There are so many immigrants, young girls, living in Ireland, it [live out] has become a very popular option, with the host families as well.” Families may not have the spare room required for a live-in, he points out.

Host families using the website are almost exclusively Irish, says Maher, while about 70 per cent of the job-seeking traffic comes from within Ireland. The other 30 per cent are posting mainly from Spain, Italy, Poland and the UK.

At pains to stress that the website is not an au pair agency and its only function is to facilitate contact between families and job-seekers, he advises people to follow employment guidelines.

The term au pair is often misunderstood in Ireland, agrees Corinna Duke, joint owner of Kangaroo Au Pair, which set up as a website in 2009 but, six months ago, added on agency services due to demand. So now there is the choice of the DIY option or a matching service with full background checks and the guarantee of a replacement if it doesn’t work out within the first three months.

If a family has found its own au pair on the website, Kangaroo also offers to do background checks for a fee of €80.

Duke describes live-out au pairs as a “grey area”. The demand is there from both sides but legislation needs to be put in place, she says. They are usually older women who don’t want to live with a family but want to gain language skills and a bit of cultural experience.

While she has had calls from clients thinking of paying a live-out au pair as little as €25 or €30 a day, she does not think it’s fair nor would she advise it. She suggests the minimum wage as the starting point in those cases; for a live-in au pair, working no more than 30 hours a week, she recommends pocket money of at least €100 a week.

There is no definition of the term “au pair” in Irish employment rights law, says a spokeswoman for the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Ireland is not party to a European agreement on au pair placement, which was drawn up by the Council of Europe.

Employee rights legislation, such as a minimum wage of €8.65 an hour, applies to anybody legally employed on an employer-employee basis. This includes those working part-time or full-time under a contract of employment – written or implied – in a person’s home.

“Whether an au pair placement falls within an employer-employee relation depends on the facts on the ground,” she explains. The National Employment Rights Authority (NERA) has dealt with individuals who, although described by their employers as au pairs, have been found to be domestic employees and as such are fully protected by the State’s employment rights legislation.

“The NERA investigates such employers who are using the term au pair to avoid their statutory obligations under employment law,” she adds.

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