Private Household Workers

Significant Points

  • Demand will far outstrip the supply of workers willing to provide private household services because the work is hard, earnings are low, and benefits and advancement opportunities are few.
  • Persons who are interested in and suited for this work should have no trouble finding and keeping jobs.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

Private household workers clean homes, care for children, plan and cook meals, do laundry, administer the household, and perform numerous other duties. Many types of households of various income levels employ these workers. Although wealthy families may employ a large staff, it is much more common for one worker to be employed in a household where both parents work. Many workers are employed in households having one parent. A number of household workers work part time for two or more employers.

Most household workers are general house workers and usually the only worker employed in the home. They dust and polish furniture; sweep, mop, and wax floors; vacuum; and clean ovens, refrigerators, and bathrooms. They may also wash dishes, polish silver, and change and make beds. Some wash, fold, and iron clothes; a few wash windows. Other duties may include looking after a child or an elderly person, cooking, feeding pets, answering the telephone and doorbell, and calling and waiting for repair workers. General house workers may also take clothes and laundry to the cleaners, buy groceries, and do many other errands.

Household workers whose primary responsibility is taking care of children are called child-care workers. Those employed on an hourly basis are usually called baby-sitters. Child-care workers bathe, dress, and feed children; supervise their play; wash their clothes; and clean their rooms. They may also put them to sleep and waken them, read to them, involve them in educational games, take them for doctors’ visits, and discipline them. Those who are in charge of infants, sometimes called infant nurses, also prepare bottles and change diapers.

Nannies generally take care of children from birth to age 10 or 12, tending to the child’s early education, nutrition, health, and other needs. They may also perform the duties of a general housekeeper, including general cleaning and laundry duties. Governesses look after children in addition to other household duties. They may help them with schoolwork, teach them a foreign language, and guide them in their general upbringing. (Child-care workers who work outside the child’s home are covered in the statement on child-care workers elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Companions or personal attendants assist elderly, handicapped, or convalescent people. Depending on the employer’s needs, a companion or attendant might help with bathing and dressing, preparing and serving meals, and keeping the house tidy. They also may read to their employers, write letters for them, play cards or games, and go with them on walks and outings. Companions may also accompany their employers to medical appointments and handle their social and business affairs.

Households with a large staff may include a household manager, housekeeper, or butler, as well as a cook, caretaker, and launderer. Household managers, housekeepers, and butlers hire, supervise, and coordinate the household staff to keep the household running smoothly. Butlers also receive and announce guests, answer telephones, deliver messages, serve food and drinks, chauffeur, or act as a personal attendant. Cooks plan and prepare meals, clean the kitchen, order groceries and supplies, and may also serve meals. Caretakers do heavy housework and general home maintenance. They wash windows, wax floors, and hang draperies. They maintain heating and other equipment and do light carpentry, painting, and odd jobs. They may also mow the lawn and do some gardening if the household does not have a gardener.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

Private household workers usually work in pleasant and comfortable homes or apartments. Most are day workers who live in their own homes and travel to work. Some live in the home of their employer, generally with their own room and bath. Live-ins usually work longer hours. However, if they work evenings or weekends, they may get other time off. Live-ins may feel isolated from family and friends. On the other hand, they often become part of their employer’s family, and may derive satisfaction from caring for them. Being a general house worker can also be isolating, since work is usually done alone.

Housekeeping is hard work. Both day workers and live-ins are on their feet most of the day and do much walking, lifting, bending, stooping, and reaching. In addition, some employers may be very demanding.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Private household workers held about 928,000 jobs in 1998. About 65 percent were cleaners and servants, mostly day workers; about 33 percent were child-care workers, including baby sitters; and less than 3 percent were housekeepers, butlers, cooks, and launderers. Most jobs are in big cities and their affluent suburbs. Some are on large estates or in resorts away from cities.

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

Private household workers generally do not need any special training. Individuals who cannot find other work because of limited language or other skills often turn to this work. Most jobs require the ability to clean, cook, or take care of children. These skills are generally learned by young people while helping with housework at home. Some training takes place on the job. Employers show the household workers what they want done and how. For child-care workers and companions, general education and the ability to get along with the person they will care for are most important.

Home economics courses in high schools and vocational and adult education schools offer training in cooking and child care. Courses in child development, first aid, and nursing in postsecondary schools are highly recommended.

Schools for butlers, nannies, and governesses teach household administration, early childhood education, nutrition, child care, and bookkeeping. These schools may offer certifications in household management—for example, Certified Household Manager, Certified Professional Nanny, or Certified Professional Governess—and assist in job placement. However, most private household workers get jobs through employment agencies and recommendations from previous employers.

Private household workers should work well with others and be honest, discreet, dependable, courteous, and neat. They also need physical stamina.

There are very few opportunities for advancement within this occupation. Few large households exist with big staffs where general house workers can advance to cook, executive housekeeper, butler, or governess, and these jobs may require specialized training. Advancement usually consists of better pay and working conditions. Workers may move to similar jobs in hotels, hospitals, and restaurants, where the pay and benefits are usually better. A few workers start companies that provide household services for a fee. Others transfer into better-paying, unrelated jobs.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Job opportunities for people wishing to become private household workers are expected to be excellent through 2008, as the demand for these services continues to far outpace the supply of workers willing to provide them. Those with formal training or excellent recommendations from previous employers should be particularly sought after.

For many years, demand for household help has outstripped the supply of workers willing to take domestic jobs. The imbalance is expected to persist, and possibly worsen. Demand is expected to grow as more women join the labor force and need help running their households. Demand for companions and personal attendants is also expected to rise due to projected rapid growth in the elderly population.

The supply situation is not likely to improve. The physical demands of the work, low status, low pay, few benefits, and limited advancement potential deter many prospective household workers. Due to the limited supply of household workers, many employers have turned to domestic cleaning firms, child-care centers, and temporary help firms to meet their needs for household help. This trend is expected to continue. (See the statements on janitors and cleaners, preschool teachers and child-care workers, and home health and personal care aides elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Employment of private household workers is expected to decline through 2008. However, job openings will be numerous because of the need to replace workers who change jobs within the occupation and the large number of workers who leave these occupations every year. Persons who are interested in and suited for this work should have no trouble finding and keeping jobs.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Earnings of private household workers depend on the type of work, the number of hours, household and staff size, geographic location, training, and experience.

Most private household workers are employed part time, or less than 35 hours a week. Some work only 2 or 3 days a week while others may work half a day 4 or 5 days a week. Earnings vary from about $10 an hour or more in a big city to less than the Federal minimum wage—$5.15 an hour in 1998. (Minimum wage laws may not cover private household workers who work just a few hours per week or have very low annual earnings.) In addition, day workers often get carfare and a free meal. Live-in domestics usually earn more than day workers and also get free room and board. However, they often work longer hours. Baby-sitters usually have the lowest earnings.

Usual median weekly earnings of all private household workers in 1998 were $223. Cleaners and servants earned $235 per week, cooks earned $380 per week, child-care workers earned $204 per week, and housekeepers and butlers earned $206 per week. Some full-time live-in housekeepers, cooks, butlers, nannies, and governesses earned considerably more. Based on limited information, experienced and highly recommended workers employed by wealthy families in major metropolitan areas may earn $800 to $1,200 a week.

Private household workers who live with their employers may be given room and board, medical benefits, a car, vacation days, and education benefits. However, most private household workers receive very limited or no benefits.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Other workers with similar duties are building custodians, hotel and restaurant cleaners, child-care workers, home health and personal care aides, cooks, kitchen workers, waiters and waitresses, and bartenders.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Information about job opportunities for private household workers is available from local private employment agencies and State employment service offices.

For information about careers and schools offering training for nannies, contact:

  • American Council of Nanny Schools, Delta College, University Center, MI 48710.
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