Thursday, December 11, 2008

Babysitter Layoffs: As The Rich Get Less Rich, The Times Gets More Interested.

The Times this morning continues its comprehensive coverage of the recession's painful impact on upper middle class employers, struggling with the emotional agony of laying off employees.

Today's story tells tales of woe among laid-off professionals who can't keep paying their babysitters.

Only reporter Julie Scelfo (a former Newsweek trend-spotter) can't even find many examples to prove her shaky thesis, leaving us a story that doesn't even deliver on its insensitive, elitest premise that yet again focuses mostly on the wrong side of the economic equation.

With typical Home section cluelessness about the real world -- remember, it was in these pages that Penelope Green reported a few weeks ago about the production executive being forced to give up his premium cable channels -- the purpose of Scelfo's cover story today is to show that the recession is forcing families to cut back on domestic help during the downturn.

But is it? There's little in Scelfo's account to confirm that hypothesis except vague quantifiers, expert speculation and a couple of on-the-record examples, including a real estate agent in Larchmont who's contemplating a layoff of her babysitter next June. It's too thin and shapeless to warrant being the lead story of the week. Here's her thesis:

In the New York area, where there is a high number of dual-career professionals and where workdays are notoriously long, the number of people filling in for them at home is also immense. Domestic Workers United, a nonprofit advocacy group, estimates there are more than 200,000 nannies, housekeepers, personal chefs and other domestic workers employed in the New York metropolitan area.

And as professionals recalibrate their spending because of job losses, salary or bonus cuts or just anxiety about the future, said Ai-jen Poo, an organizer at Domestic Workers United, “domestic workers’ wages are often the first thing that gets compromised.”

But have they been compromised? Scelfo produces nothing to quantify the point of her 1,458-word story. Those laying off their babysitters and housekeepers are people now in a position to do their own domestic work. And in most instances, those interviewed by Scelfo say they are mulling layoffs, but hope to avoid them.

A female lawyer -- who, with her lawyer husband, employs a housekeeper, two part-time nannies and a dogwalker -- tells Scelfo that she is "considering" dismissing her $150-a-week-housekeeper. "She doesn’t do that great a job," the woman says, "but she has four kids and I know she relies on the money." Okay, well, let us know when you make a decision!

A Carroll Gardens mother who lost a teaching job says that when she told her housekeeper that she might soon have to lay her off, the employee left to return to her native Poland. "It was really hard," the mother said.

Hard, maybe -- but not as hard as being a babysitter or housekeeper without a job. After running out of examples and steam, Scelfo turns her attention more appropriately to the impact of layoffs on those being laid off. Even there, she fails to find the kind of examples that might have made this story resonate with readers; she quotes one unemployed babysitter saying, "Nobody's looking for babysitters," but doesn't do much to back up those emotions with more examples.

There's a legitimate story to be done about the ways in which this recession has altered the already tenuous employment status of New York's domestic population. There's even a way to appropriately address the discomfort that comes from what the story's headline tantalizingly refers to as "Trickledown Downsizing."

But when the Times's style pages turn to these topical areas of human interest and class drama, they need to report them with the same sensitivity and energy that shapes the rest of the paper's coverage. The Times's Home section reporters just aren't working hard enough, and it shows.


Anonymous said...

Thin? It seemed fine to me. The nut graf never promised more than the workers would get "compromised". If 10,000 folks at Lehmann get fired, then 10,000 jobs are "in jeopardy". The reporter didn't promised that every job was already toast.

Statistics are, at best, three to four months late and, at worst, outright lies. Plus, they're often impossible to gather when there are so many undocumented workers. If Michael Chertoff's billions of dollars of DHS apparatus can't keep undocumented workers from doing his personal work, how can a reporter get real numbers?

I think it was actually refreshing for the NYT to make some attempt to understand the emotional minefields for everyone who, ah let's use an able euphemism, creates jobs. It's well and good to scold the executives at GM/Ford/Chrysler for flying in corporate jets, but let's not forget that running those companies can be an impossible and thankless job. Getting bitchy people (ahem) to work together is not easy. Not every story can be filled to the brim with handwringing about the poor and oppressed.

Indeed, some folks are enjoying the irony that the rich will be hit much harder than the poor for so many complex reasons. I don't really believe it, but it's fun to consider:

Oh, and let me say, that I still enjoy your site. At one time you clearly worked at creating news and understand some of the limits facing the poor reporter with 1000 words to fill.

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