News & Politics

Ask the Coronavirus Ethicist: Can Our Nanny Keep Working at Our House?

A professional ethicist answers the tricky questions we're all facing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Daniel Sulmasy, acting director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. Photo by Jason Smith, courtesy of Dr. Sulmasy.
Coronavirus 2020

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Dear Coronavirus Ethicist,

Our toddler son has a wonderful nanny who normally stays with him full-time while my husband and I work outside the house. Our companies have recently gone to all work-from-home so both he and I will now be home.

Should my husband and I try to handle childcare ourselves while working from home or is it okay to keep having our dear nanny come to our home as long as none of us are at all sick? We would keep paying our nanny either way. For a bit more context on continuing to pay her if she’s not working, we can probably make do for 3-4 weeks before we run out of leave ourselves and it blows our budget all to shreds.

Daniel P. Sulmasy, MD, PhD, acting director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University: It sounds as if your nanny is almost part of your family. It is very thoughtful of you to commit to continuing to pay her. You also seem to grasp the public health distinction between social distancing and mandatory universal quarantine. Social distancing requires that one avoid public transportation and sizeable gatherings (roughly no more than ten people), particularly of strangers, and that all persons try to keep at least six feet apart. That is the current public health advice we have all received. Mandatory universal quarantine is a higher level of precaution, requiring all persons to stay in their homes. Italy has needed to deploy this measure, but it is hoped that because we have implemented strong public health measures early in the epidemic, we can be effective in limiting the spread of the virus here in the US without resorting to this drastic measure. So, it is permissible for your nanny to come to your home. There might be good reasons to do this. After all, your child might miss her and she might miss your child. Social distancing ought not to mean social isolation. Also, if you are really working from home, it will be hard to do your jobs if you need to devote work time to child care. Yet a plan to continue her work on site must be carried out with care and diligence. Your nanny should not come to your home if any of you become sick, and she should stay away if she herself becomes sick. You should commit to this arrangement only with the understanding that all three of you will be careful to comply with social distancing practices, wash your hands frequently, etc.

As to your question of how long you should commit to employing her services, I would say that you should continue until you and your husband, honestly, can no longer afford to do so. It is a dictum of ethics that “ought implies can.” That is to say, one only has a moral obligation to do what one is capable of doing. If you start to run out of money, your duty to care for your child’s needs would outweigh the duty to help your nanny.

If you have a question for the coronavirus ethicist, email