clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Getty Images

Filed under:

Is it ethical to hire babysitters, delivery services, and cleaners right now?

Many service employees are still at work. If you need help, maintaining their safety and yours is tricky, but this is what experts and workers’ rights representatives suggest.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Individuals may be doing the best they can to follow the rules of social distancing, but if anything has become clear a few weeks into quarantine, it’s just how many gray areas exist.

After all, it’s impossible to completely limit interactions with front-line workers such as grocery store employees or delivery people. And the ethical implications of using services have also become increasingly clear in recent weeks. Tensions and safety concerns among gig and front-line workers are rising; in recent days, strikes by employees of Amazon, Instacart, and Whole Foods over working conditions are leading consumers to question whether it’s ethical to even use such services.

“Doctors and nurses have a moral obligation to show up to work, even with the understanding they may get exposed to a virus. But grocery store clerks or delivery people have never bargained for this. If they don’t show up, they get fired or don’t get paid,” says Leonard Fleck, a medical ethicist and the acting director of the Center for Ethics at the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University.

So, what personal services can — or should you use right now? Here’s what six infectious disease specialists and workers’ representatives suggest for making safe and moral choices as you weigh interacting with concierge staff in a high-rise building, using delivery services, or hiring babysitting or pet care support so you can keep up with your job.

I can’t concentrate and need child care to help me effectively work from home. Can I get a babysitter?

“In general, I would say, don’t have the babysitter come over,” says David Cennimo, a physician and assistant professor of medicine specializing in pediatric infectious diseases at Rutgers University. “But that said, I am working with many wonderful parents in health care who are juggling their family and work responsibilities.” If you do need a sitter, think of it as “expanding the circle.” This, Cennimo says, means considering your babysitter and their family part of your family — even if you live in separate homes.

This means you may ask that he or she does not see other clients (and pay extra for that privilege) and that you make sure to keep each other apprised of symptoms or risk factors for coronavirus. For example, does your sitter’s son drive for a ride-sharing service? That increases your risk of exposure. Bottom line: You need to know each other’s comings and goings, which may mean having conversations about each family’s routines, habits, and social distancing efforts, says Cennimo.

“We don’t have formal guidelines or recommendations, since the job is so personal,” says Laura Schroeder, co-president of the International Nanny Association. “What we are advocating is that our nannies have conversations with their employers about their situation, their health, and make sure that any what-if scenarios are covered.” For example, would a babysitter or nanny consider sheltering in place with a family? Will a nanny still get paid even if she is ill or has been in contact with someone who has Covid-19 and can no longer work while quarantined? Is it possible for the family to provide a ride or rental car to minimize the nanny using public transportation? “We’re advising people to pay their nannies, even if they’re not coming in, if they can,” adds Schroeder.

One workaround: If you already have a babysitter and your child is old enough to pay sustained attention to a video chat for 30 minutes, consider having them Zoom for short periods during your important conference calls or meetings so your child can be entertained and occupied playing cards, coloring, or playing games with their sitter, says Schroeder.

How do I interact with doormen and delivery people?

If you live in a major city, you’re going to have more interactions than if you were in a small town, says Laila Woc-Colburn, medical director of the infectious disease section at Baylor College of Medicine. “Follow the general rules: Maintain a 6-foot distance. Wear a mask, make sure they’re wearing a mask, get your package yourself rather than have someone else touch it and deliver it.”

If that protocol isn’t being followed, it may be worth reaching out to your building management and asking about their policy for worker protection and, Woc-Colburn says, request an alternative way of receiving packages. If packages are stored in a room where the concierge must retrieve it for you, ask whether it’s possible to enter the room yourself or have the delivery person drop items directly outside your door. Waiting three days to open it is the ultimate safety measure after you receive a package, but if that’s not possible, Woc-Colburn recommends thoroughly washing your hands before and after handling a package, and keeping package opening to one area of your house, such as the entryway, which you then make a point to sanitize each day.

As for delivery workers, economic consequences may mean that they may show up even if they feel ill. While this issue demands societal change, in the interim, you can help protect yourself and workers by using services that allow for sick leave. Retailers such as Safeway, Kroger, and Walmart now offer sick leave for employees with a confirmed Covid-19 diagnosis (which watchdog groups say is not adequate, given the dearth of tests available); but local businesses may offer a more all-encompassing umbrella policy for sick leave to protect workers. Companies should also provide adequate personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves. Due to public pressure and the possibility of strikes, for example, Instacart now provides face masks, hand sanitizer, and thermometers to workers.

Unions have different rules and guidelines regarding employees and the coronavirus. For example, 32BJ-SEIU, the largest property services union in the country (representing doormen, cleaners, and airport employees, among others), makes it clear that union members can’t refuse to work if they are asked to clean a space where someone with a confirmed case of Covid-19 has been, although their employers are required to provide personal protective equipment. But familiarizing yourself with workers’ conditions — asking about sick leave policies, protective supplies, and proactive actions companies are taking on behalf of workers — may be helpful as you assess the services you will need to use, says Fleck.

And if you can tip workers — concierges, delivery people — generously during this time, that’s helpful as well, says Fleck. After all, they’re out there so you don’t have to be.

Can I hire a personal trainer?

At first glance, training outside, 6 feet apart, seems like a smart way to practice social distancing, provide continuous employment for a trainer, and get a much-needed mental and physical break. But experts say sticking to virtual sessions is smarter, especially when many trainers and boutique studios are offering them. (Some to consider: Orangetheory’s 30-minute workouts, Barry’s Bootcamp free live IGTV workouts, and Rumble’s live boxing workouts; there is also a slew of apps offering at-home exercise plans.)

“People have difficulty with keeping distance while interacting. They may touch things they don’t realize, and doing a workout isn’t a time when we are regularly washing our hands or focusing on cleanliness,” says Matthew Fox, a professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Global Health at Boston University. “And for many of us — at least this is true for me — sweating is a time when we touch our faces a fair bit, even if just to push sweat out of our eyes or deal with itching.” The other issue, says Fox, is a mental one. “If you convince yourself it’s okay for the trainer, you are likely to say it’s okay for a friend and so on. Minimize the risk to what is essential.”

What about employing a contractor or mover?

A toilet overflows. The roof is leaking. Your lease is up. But epidemiologists are clear: The less you interact with people, the better. “The good rule of thumb right now is to assume everyone has Covid-19 right now. With that in mind, it’s best practice to have nothing unnecessary going in or coming out of [your] residence,” says Emily Ricotta, a research fellow in the epidemiology unit at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

If a service call is truly urgent, limit interaction with workers and be specific about which work surfaces will be touched. “Anything that is touched by someone who is infected could contain the virus,” says Fox, while a debate continues about whether the virus may be carried in the air. If you can, sanitize the room that needs work, then avoid the room for a minimum of 24 hours. After the work is done, avoid contact with the room for 72 hours if you can — at least one study has suggested that the novel coronavirus can live on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for up to three days — and then wipe down surfaces.

If you’re using a mover, call around and ask about the company’s sick leave and personal protective equipment policies, suggests Fleck. Pack as much as you can yourself (or use a service, like a pod, that minimizes person-to-person contact); try to be outside the residence while the movers pack the rest. Use new boxes instead of recycled ones. Once the move is complete, wait several days if possible before unpacking, and sanitize as you unpack, suggests Woc-Coburn.

Can I book a cleaning service?

Hygiene has created a paradox during the coronavirus crisis: While it’s critical to keep spaces as sanitized as possible, commercial and residential clients are laying off cleaners.

Right now, a petition with nearly 100,000 signatures from the American House Cleaners Association is asking local and national leaders, as well as the CDC, for clarity regarding the role of house cleaners and requesting clarification of commercial and residential cleaning as an essential trade in all 50 states.

But many epidemiologists Vox spoke with say that professional cleaning of a personal residence is not an essential service. “If you can delay a service, you should,” says Ricotta. But if cleaning is essential — for example, if you’re allowing a health care worker to stay in a second home, or there’s one in your household — then it’s smart to let the house cleaner in the home without anyone else inside and encourage them to wear gloves and a mask, and use products already in the home, to avoid spreading the virus via a supply caddy, says Ricotta. Once the cleaning is done, the space should ideally be left unoccupied for a few days.

But even if you cancel a cleaning service, make a point to pay your cleaner if you are in a position to do so.

Can I continue using my dog walker?

It seems contact-free, but epidemiologists say there are risks involved in hiring a dog-walker. For example, the virus could potentially spread through surfaces, including the leash, collar, or your dog’s fur, says Woc-Coburn. The circle of clients your dog walker interacts with regularly may also be a source of concern, especially if clients may be ill even if they’re not showing any symptoms of Covid-19. (Per the CDC, there is no current evidence that pets themselves can contract or spread Covid-19.)

Okay, I’ll minimize professional services. But can a friend help me out?

It doesn’t come down to whether your friend is sick or not, says Ricotta. It’s all about who your friend has come into contact with. Let’s say you live with four people. So does your friend. Add that together, and suddenly, instead of being exposed to four people — and whatever they may have picked up on their run or at the grocery store — you’re exposed to eight people. You’re also potentially bringing those eight people’s germs with you when you go out.

“But I also think it’s important to place importance on your mental health, too,” says Ricotta. “If you live alone, that can be really hard. But your risk goes up if you add other people to your group, and it’s not recommended. While it’s probably okay to have limited contact with a person you trust, and with safety routines in place, it still elevates personal and community risk.” In other words, having a coronavirus buddy (who could double as a babysitter, hairstylist, or general contractor in a pinch) can be safe. But that’s provided you’re both following protocol, keeping a line of communication open, and minimizing contact with the greater outside world.

The hard truth is that, if you’re questioning whether or not it’s okay, it’s probably not. “We all have to play the same game,” says Ricotta. “It sucks and we’re bored and frustrated, but if we relax too early, then everything we’ve done so far is for nothing.”

Listen to Today, Explained

Essential workers in the food, transportation, and retail industries are being called American heroes. They want to be paid as such.

Subscribe to Today, Explained wherever you get your podcasts, including: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and Stitcher.

Future Perfect

How the US is preparing to fight — and win — a war in space

Even Better

How to make your anger work for you

Future Perfect

We have treatments for opioid addiction that work. So why is the problem getting worse?

View all stories in The Highlight

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.