At Family Care Agency, Sylvie Miller is giving her index finger a major workout on her nine-line phone.
Line 1 wants two sitters for a pair of families driving to Las Vegas for a New Year's Eve bash. Line 3 wants 30 sitters for 141 children accompanying parents to a private Beverly Hills party. (Infants, toddlers, and older kids will each have their own tent with separate entertainment, she tells the caller.)
Lines 2, 4, 6, and 7 have been blinking for several minutes and will have to wait.
"This is the worst I've ever seen it," says Ms. Miller. "It's absolutely crazy."
Translation: If you're still looking for a sitter on New Year's Eve, put your order in now for Dec. 31, 2000. This year's pretty much taken. Unless you have LOTS of cash - up front.
From Los Angeles to Connecticut, Seattle to Miami, demand for baby sitters and nannies on Dec. 31 is so high that many agencies can't meet demand and others are charging up to 10 times the normal price.
*Baby Sitters Guild, the oldest, largest baby-sitting service in Los Angeles, took its first New Year's Eve order in August and has been sold out since mid-November.
*Nannies and Grannies, a Las Vegas agency, is booking fast at the rate of $350 for the first four hours (10 times the usual rate), and $25 per hour after that.
*Best Domestic Services Inc., one of the nation's largest agencies with offices in California, Connecticut, and New York, is charging $240 for a six-hour minimum.
Why is this happening? Agency owners say those who are seriously asking this question are among the slow or economically challenged. They can sum up the answer in four words passed on by their "friendly" phone receptionists: "It's the millennium, nimrod!"
Running with that helpful hint, Johnny-call-latelies are being harshly reminded of the good ol' fashioned law of supply and demand (fewer service providers - i.e., baby sitters - accompanied by high demand equals higher prices).
"A lot of people who don't usually go out on New Year's Eve are making this the exception - and that includes baby sitters," says Maurice Wingate, president of Best Domestic Services Inc.
Money as a lure
To entice prospective sitters to stay with someone else's children, another key law of American capitalism is being brought into play: Money means incentive.
"That means we've got our hands full hiring girls to sit," says Mr. Wingate. "They know what they are worth, and are demanding it. People who ordinarily wouldn't pay such prices are willing to shell out because they plan a night like this once in a lifetime."
Some who are desperate for sitters are feeling gouged by the exorbitant prices, some of which don't even include an added agency fee.
"I guess I'll be staying in [on New Year's Eve] after all," says a woman leaving Buckingham Nannies in Sherman Oaks, Calif., where the price of $30 per hour (with a six-hour minimum) does not include the $150 agency fee.
"If I'm gone from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m., I'm out $330," she says. "I don't think so."
Make your plans, fast!
But the flip side is opportunity, and an additional reason for baby sitters to celebrate.
"We figure if we can make double the going rate for one night, then that's well worth it," say Tina and Monir Georgi, who drove to L.A. from Laughlin, Nev., and are dusting off their child-care resumes in time to be hired for New Year's Eve. "When we considered how much we can save by not going out, and how much we can make by staying in, the answer was simple."
For clients willing to pay double or higher fees, there do seem to be some pockets of availability. But that is changing fast, even for those who have the benefits of searching on the Web.
Cybervisitors to Sitterbyzip.com for instance, a national directory of nanny and baby-sitting services, will find no availability in Seattle; Columbus, Ohio; Erie, Pa.; Albany, N.Y.; or the entire states of Connecticut, South Carolina, and Rhode Island.
"We've been booked since June," says Nancy Veitch, owner of Nancy's Nannies in Morehead, N.C. "Not even I will be working New Year's Eve for the first time in nine years."
One of the things that has put both clients and baby-sitting agencies on edge this holiday season is that prospective New Year's Eve revelers remain undecided about their plans. Frequent cancelations are straining relations, causing more agencies to require nonrefundable, up-front deposits or full payments.
"This is the most unusual New Year's Eve I've seen in 30 years of business," says Jennifer Hart, who started "We Sit Better Agency," in Van Nuys, Calif., in 1969.
"Unlike previous years when they feel definite about their plans, many are procrastinating or making reservations in every direction and then canceling them," she says. "I'm expecting it will get even more crazy before this ends."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society