Constable Leeann Mainwaring was among hundreds of essential workers facing an impossible choice - care for her family at home or go to work.
As New Zealand entered its historic Covid-19 lockdown in late March, daughters Kaliyah, 11, and Mia, 2 needed her at home. Employer NZ Police needed her patrolling the streets.
Single mum Mainwaring had accepted her new job at Turangi Police Station, south of Taupō - with its night shifts and odd hours - only after first arranging for a live-in au pair to fly from Germany to babysit her daughters.
Yet - when lockdown hit on March 25 - Mainwaring's au pair still hadn't arrived, held up by border closures and flight cancellations.
Hundreds of other essential workers faced the same problem as new au pairs stopped arriving, and one-third of those already in New Zealand rushed to the airport to catch flights home.
Mainwaring weighed her options. With no one to help care for her daughters, she dropped them 200km away at their grandmother's in Napier, before driving back to Turangi to help her police colleagues through lockdown.
"I don't like being away from my children. It was so hard to leave them," she said.
Mainwaring's sacrifice is one that many New Zealand police officers, doctors, nurses and farmers continue to make as they battle to cope without au pairs at home.
About 1000 new au pairs were now needed around the country, yet New Zealand's three leading placement agencies said they can't find people to fill the jobs.
Foreign au pairs remained locked out of New Zealand due to the closed borders, while Kiwis simply didn't want to do the job, the agencies said.
Operating as nannies, au pairs step in to cook, clean, teach and care for children at times when parents go to work.
They were most in-demand as live-in workers, staying with families who lived in remote areas or worked at odd-hours when childcare centres were closed, Carissa Vaudrey, managing director of Playschool Group placement agency, said.
"Take farmers, it is impossible to get someone to drive over to their house if they live rural at say 5am," Vaudrey said.
"So au pairs are an essential childcare option for a lot of essential workers."
Au pairs were also typically cheaper for families with two or more children, according to Vaudrey.
Paid New Zealand's $18.90 an hour minimum wage, au pairs were entitled to about $760 a week for 40 hours work.
However, families providing food and accommodation to au pairs could deduct this from their salaries.
It meant families typically paid about $350-$400 a week for 40 hours of childcare, while au pairs received about $240 cash-in-hand once tax was deducted.
Yet this affordability also made it hard to lure Kiwis into the job, Vaudrey said.
Kiwis were not keen to live-in with families, especially when left with just $240 cash at the end of the week, she said.
And while the $760 a week salary for au pairs who didn't live-in was more attractive to workers, it was less appealing to families, who had to pay extra for reduced convenience.
Vaudrey said she tried attracting more Kiwis to work as live-in au pairs, launching a marketing campaign after New Zealand's borders closed and local job losses mounted in the current economic downturn.
She had close to zero take-up, she said.
"When you choose to be an au pair, you don't do it for the money," Kim Wafsmus, an 18-year-old au pair from Germany, said.
"You are doing it to get to know a different culture and be a part of your host family."
The money was a bonus to spend on travelling.
Entitled to four weeks annual holiday, Wafsmus said most au pairs set off on grand trips around New Zealand, while also exploring on their days off.
Wafsmus also spent weeks getting to know her host family on video calls before she arrived.
Host mum Tori Burns' four children now thought of Wafsmus as family.
Burns said Wafsmus taught her children German, took part in karaoke and movie nights and went away on holidays with them.
When Wafsmus gained entry into her preferred university back in Germany, Burns threw a fancy dress party for her.
Wafsmus was also invaluable in helping Burns dedicate time to the family's Russell - Orongo Bay Holiday Park in the Bay of Islands.
Wafsmus travelled back-and-forth with the Burns family from their Auckland home to the holiday park, allowing Burns and her husband to help park staff on weekends and Friday evenings.
Having Wafsmus care for the children, freed Burns to concentrate on keeping the park open as an essential service during lockdown and find ways to resurrect the business after it was hit hard by Covid-19's tourism drop-off.
Burns said she didn't know how she would cope when Wafsmus returned to Germany to start her university course this month.
It comes as America's Cup crews - including one family nanny - and foreign crews working on the Avatar film set had already been granted entry into New Zealand.
Playschool Group's Vaudrey argued au pairs should be among the next list of professions granted entry.
She estimated that by October, 70 per cent of all au pairs who had been in New Zealand before lockdown will have left.
Her company had already paid to put au pairs into self-isolation facilities in March and would be willing to do so again, she said.
Au pairs also came with medical insurance and spent nearly all the money they earned back into New Zealand's economy, giving tourism companies a much-needed boost, Vaudrey said.
More importantly, they played a key role in helping keeping essential workers, she said.
"Essential workers put their lives on the line to do jobs to keep New Zealand running through the crisis, and now there is no payback for them - they don't have childcare," she said.
However, Immigration NZ's general manager of Border and Visa Operations, Nicola Hogg, confirmed au pairs didn't qualify for entry into New Zealand.
"The bar for being granted an exception to the border restrictions is set high to help stop the spread of Covid-19 and protect the health of people already in New Zealand," she said.
Only essential health workers or those deemed essential by Government Ministers were currently being granted entry, she said.
Foreigners had made 17,535 requests to enter New Zealand by mid-June, Hogg said.
Yet authorities had sent formal "Invitations to Apply" for admission into the country to just 3300.
"Employers, including families looking for live-in childcare, must consider the availability of New Zealanders for the work," Hogg said.
Despite her initial stresses, Constable Mainwaring, meanwhile, has turned out to be luckier than most.
Her new job in Turangi was a big step forward in her career, bringing more money home for her two daughters.
But it relied on help from an au pair.
So when 20-year-old German au pair Anna-Lena Molder phoned in March to say it didn't look like she would be able to make it into New Zealand, Mainwaring had heart palpitations.
"I thought, 'oh my gosh what am i going to do, I won't be able to do my new job if she doesn't come' - it was really stressful," Mainwaring said.
Luckily, Molder landed just before New Zealand's borders closed on March 19 and went into two weeks of self-isolation before joining Mainwaring half way through New Zealand's level 4 lockdown.
That meant Mainwaring only had to spend two weeks without her daughters.
Since then her girls have fallen in love with Molder.
Mainwaring's also convinced Molder to extend her stay into next year rather than just to October as Molder had earlier planned.
"I am in the ideal situation, but elsewhere I know lots of essential workers screaming out for au pairs," Mainwaring said.