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In era of stalled wages, baby sitters surging ahead

High demand, couples’ paying power send hourly scale soaring

Riley Goodwin, 16, recently baby-sat Gabriel McGarry, 8, and his sister Tessa, 6, who played at their home.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Riley Goodwin, 16, recently baby-sat Gabriel McGarry, 8, and his sister Tessa, 6, who played at their home.

Wages for most US workers have stagnated, with the exception of one little-noted group: the American baby sitter.

Baby sitter rates across the nation have soared, with costs in Greater Boston among the highest. Teenage sitters here command about $10 an hour, a wage that has risen about nine times faster than inflation since the early 1980s, according to the Labor Department. And the more-experienced sitters — those with college degrees or who, say, speak fluent Mandarin — fetch $17 an hour or more.

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The average is about $12 an hour — more than the average wage of health care aides or retail salespeople. Only San Francisco, New York, Washington, and Los Angeles have higher baby-sitting rates, according to a site for baby sitters, UrbanSitter.com.

“In this day and age to find a qualified sitter is difficult and when you finally do, they’re so expensive you can’t really afford them,” said Heather Walker, a mother of two in Jamaica Plain. “My husband and I have been on about five dates in five years.”

As high rates cramp date nights, several factors are influencing the economics of baby-sitting.

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Internet services such as Craigslist have created greater transparency, allowing sitters to see what their competition charges and raise rates to what the market can bear.

Busy two-earner families are not only increasing demand for sitters, but their higher incomes make them more willing to pay higher rates for older, more experienced sitters.

That trend coincides with a weak job market that is making college students and even recent graduates willing to take such work.

Finally, with so many teens busy with after-school activities from SAT prep classes to high school sports to community service, their time is more valuable, meaning they want higher pay to put aside these pursuits. Economists call this phenomenon “opportunity cost.”

“You’d be hard pressed to find [another] profession where you see any wage growth,” said Erica Groshen, commissioner of US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks employment, wages, and other job-market data.

Riley Goodwin, a 16-year-old baby sitter in Framingham, is too busy to baby-sit during basketball season, when she plays on her high school team. But off-season, she charges $10 a hour to baby-sit, a rate she determined after consulting her mother and concluding that she should get paid more than minimum wage ($8 an hour), but less than an older baby sitter.

She baby-sits about once a month, earning about $50 or more, and likes the extra money. “I eventually want to get a car,” Goodwin said.

For older and more experienced sitters, baby-sitting money is paying for rent, meals, and in some cases, tuition.

On UrbanSitter.com, for example, a family can hire a 25-year old graduate student studying archival management for $13 an hour, a senior at Harvard (and captain of a varsity team) for $12 an hour, or a recent Boston University graduate who is fluent in Spanish for $15 an hour. All accept credit cards.

“You have dual-income families used to shelling out money for swim lessons or preschool,” said Lynn Perkins, chief executive of UrbanSitter, based in San Francisco. “College students, child development majors, nursing students come with a premium and the understanding that the sitter will be very engaged with the child.”

Samantha McGarry, a public relations executive and mother of two in Framingham, typically pays $15 an hour for a sitter but will go higher for someone who is mature and experienced.

“I like to use someone who will engage them and not let them get away with their shenanigans,” she said of her kids. “Sometimes, a teenage baby sitter can be a bit of a pushover.”

Karen Dennis is a mother of seven and owner of Mother’s Helper in Ashland, an employment agency for adult baby sitters. She said the number of college graduates looking for baby-sitting work has been on the rise as many recent graduates find that baby-sitting supplements or pays more than some entry-level jobs.

“Years ago, nobody would graduate from college and go baby-sit,” Dennis said. “But they’re making more money now.”

Dennis said the baby sitters she places in jobs across the Metro West area charge $13 an hour for one child, $14 an hour for two.

Brenna Banister, 23, a recent Boston University graduate, said she has so many baby-sitting offers that she plans to raise her rate to $15 an hour this fall from $12.

Many of her fellow graduates are struggling to pay bills, she said, but baby-sitting supplements her part-time job at a Cambridge day care center and gives her enough money to go out socially.

Baby-sitting jobs were “especially great in college, because I could go put the kids to bed and do my homework,” she said. “My friends were just sitting in the dorm doing their homework, but I was making money.”

Other baby sitters said the pay is so good and jobs so abundant that they can afford to be choosey.

Megan Bissell, a 20-year-old nursing student at Simmons College, said she makes $15 an hour caring for a 3-year-old in Brookline and has a roster of parents who call her routinely for other jobs. She’s been a baby sitter for about seven years,

Sounding like a world-weary veteran, she described how she charges less if she’s baby-sitting as a favor for a friend or more when she’s caring for a difficult child.

And then there are some jobs that are not worth any amount of money — like when she’s come home with bruises.

“Some families think a good tip can make it OK, even if the kid is awful,” she said. “It doesn’t.”

Megan Woolhouse
can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.
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