New Jersey mom of two Amanda was looking for a child care solution when she settled on hiring an au pair. An Italian-American who studied abroad in Italy, Amanda selected a woman from Milan as her first au pair in hopes of introducing Italian culture to her children.
Amanda says it was a great decision. Her au pair arrived with limited English skills but quickly picked up the language through daily interactions and immersion in an English-speaking culture. She watched Amanda’s kids, driving them to and from school, and performed light housekeeping tasks. After 12 months with her, Amanda says she feels like the Milanese woman will be part of their family forever.
Au pairs can seem like an elegant solution to the thorny problem of child care — and often times they are. The cost of an au pair is relatively low: the minimum stipend is just under $200 a week, a bargain compared to the high cost of a full-time nanny or even most major metro area daycares. An au pair in America lives with the family, meaning they’re available in the off-hours when parents need the help most. Families hosting au pairs are encouraged to include them in activities. It’s defined as a cultural exchange, not a job, so it seems less like childcare and more like having a cousin on an extended visit from overseas helping out with your kids.
But as with everything that seems too good to be true, issues can arise with au pairs. News reports and nonprofit investigations that quote au pairs comparing their treatment to slavery drain a lot of warmth and fuzziness out of the job description. In 2013, Bernie Sanders denounced the au pair program as a “scam”. Following a 2014 class action lawsuit from au pairs alleging wage theft, the Washington Post reported on an au pair whose host family forced her to work more than 60 hours a week. A 2017 Politico investigation found that host families refused to buy their au pairs staple foods like bread and that au pairs’ complaints routinely disappeared into “a bureaucratic black hole.” Shortchanged, a 2018 report authored by American University’s International Human Rights Law Clinic and immigration and labor rights groups, found that structural deficiencies in the au pair program foster labor rights abuses.
Most recently, in December 2019, a federal court ruled that Massachusetts labor laws protect au pairs. With the state’s $11 hourly minimum wage, host families had to pay about $17,000 more a year than before. Many opted to withdraw from the program.
Au pair supporters call the criticism overblown, saying it unfairly tarnishes a beneficial program. But civil rights advocates say the system can make even well-meaning families unwitting exploiters of vulnerable workers.
“I tried to be clear that they’re here to do a job but also going to be part of our family and enjoy life and I want you to find that balance,” Amanda says. “We’re very humane with au pairs. Other moms asked me if I paid our au pair to do more hours than the 45. I said absolutely not. That’s not part of the program. That’s not how it works.”
The American Au Pair System
The United States’ au pair program was founded in 1986 as a cultural exchange program intended to promote diplomacy and friendly international relations. Because au pairs are classified as cultural exchanges, they fall under the State Department’s J-1 Visa program. While the program issues hundreds of thousands of visas to temporary foreign workers each year, it only has 30 employees — far too few, critics say, to oversee the 18,000 people who travel to America each year to work as au pairs. Despite the general familiarity of the concept, the au pair program’s relatively small in scale: the number of au pairs in America never exceed 20,000 and is largely clustered in New York, California, New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts.
Author and consultant Celia Harquail ran the blog and online resource Au Pair Mom for more than 10 years until stepping away from in October, 2019. Through the site, she connected with au pair host families and potential host families from across the country.
“I say as a person who had 11 over the course of my kids’ childhood, having an Au pair can be really fun and joyful,” she says.
Harquail says it’s gratifying to see au pairs learn about America through cultural immersion. “We had these young adult women coming into our family with great enthusiasm about being in the United States and great excitement about learning English,” she says.
According to State Dept. regulations, au pairs have to be between 18 and 26 years old. au pair placement agencies like Cultural Care have recruiting centers across the globe trying to entice people who are interested in new countries and new cultures. Harquil said that while they’re away from their families and countries of origins, au pairs often find comfort in their connection to their host families.
“Generally, there’s a lot of enthusiasm around making a connection with your kids as a big sister or a cousin and feeling part of your family,” she says, adding that the family connection can make exploring a new country seem less daunting.
Amanda likens choosing an au pair from her service to using a car search or dating website. “You can choose whatever criteria you want,” she says. “You say, ‘I want this country, I want this language’ or ‘I want someone that’s this age,’ then you do all sorts of searches and search criteria and then you narrow down the field and you say, these few sound good.”
When her au pair started, Amanda’s kids were in school full-time. As Amanda and her husband were both working in jobs requiring regular travel, the flexibility offered by a live-in au pair was invaluable.
“Just having an adult there in my house is very helpful,” she says. “But there’s also the flexibility in terms of hours. For the first three years, we had a nanny who would come to the house each day, but then she had to leave and I had to rush home at a certain time.”
The Au Pair Issue
Still, the program comes with its fair share of scrutiny. In early 2019, a federal court ordered 15 au pair agencies to pay $65 million to 100,000 former au pairs in a class action suit brought on by about a dozen former au pairs accusing agencies of colluding to suppress wages and prevent them from seeking better working conditions.
Harquail, however, questions the suit’s findings, saying the case’s central narrative doesn’t accurately represent the au pair system.
“There are always going to be people who abuse the system and take advantage of people,” she says. “But the idea that there are 17,000 families in the United States that are withholding food or not giving au pairs private bedrooms or not giving them time off or making them work 50 or 60 hours a week is to me almost absurd. Are there some people who do that? I’m sure there are. Are they the norm? Absolutely not.”
Harquail says the case elides the bad behavior that au pairs can engage in.
“And what you don’t hear about the au pairs who take the family car without permission and drive across state lines to go visit some guy that they met on Tinder,” she says. “You don’t hear about the au pair who leaves in the middle of the night and then you go clean out her room and her closets full of Jagermeister bottles. And what you don’t hear about is the au pair who leaves the kid in daycare and simply disappears.”
Harquail adds: “So I personally felt that the lawsuit was very ginned up and very, very unrepresentative of the program and how it works for au pairs or for host parents.”
David Seligman, director of Towards Justice, a nonprofit Colorado-based law firm that represented the au pairs in the settlement, believes his clients’ experience was more the rule than the exception. The lawsuit began in 2014 when an au pair approached Towards Justice with complaints about her employer.
“We investigated the issue and ended up determining that this really wasn’t just about sort of this sort of one off mistreatment, but about broader systemic problems with the industry,” Seligman says.
Seligman says the problems were driven principally by the sponsor agencies that place prospective au pairs with host families. Fifteen for-profit companies are designated as sponsor agencies by the State Dept. The sponsor agencies typically charge families for connecting them with au pairs and also collect a recruitment fee ranging from $500 to $3,000 from the au pairs.
The lawsuit accused the sponsor companies of working together to fix wages for au pairs they recruited. Host families are required to pay au pairs a minimum weekly stipend of $195.75 but, Seligman says, the stipend was often mischaracterized as a maximum.
au pairs can ask to be placed with different families but Seligman says the agencies make it difficult to be reassigned. As a result, they’re deprived of one of the most important tools that workers have to protect themselves in the labor market: the threat to find work elsewhere. “And once you take that away, like you really like workers become, become quite vulnerable,” Seligman says.
In several news stories, au pairs say agencies misled them about the responsibilities they’d have in their American jobs. They arrive believing they’re cultural ambassadors who’d be able to travel and explore America and are shocked at the childcare expectations.
Sharon, a mother of two from Connecticut, hosted two au pairs and was disappointed by what she saw as a disconnection between the job what the agencies told families and prospective au pairs about the job. Both of her au pairs were frustrated that her central Connecticut town was much further from New York City than they expected.
“I imagine that the girls who are placed in cities do the recruiting and tell tales of wild weekends of fun,” she says.
The Final Word on Au Pairs
Seligman says that many families inadvertently skirt laws regarding au pairs after being misled by au pair agencies. “Historically, they have been deceived into assuming that the stipend for au pair was actually the maximum allowable wage and that there wasn’t a free market in which au pairs could shop for better wages or treatment,” Seligman said.
Seligman says the collusion between the sponsor agencies led many host families to unwittingly short their au pair’s wages.
“There are many stories of families who are seriously mistreating au pairs, but there are also families who are acting in good faith and are doing what their sponsor agencies tell them to do and think that they’re complying with the law and that they’re treating their au pair well,” Seligman says.
The nature of the system, per Seligman, often obscures the employer-employee relationship between families and au pairs. “I think that some families are led to believe that this isn’t really isn’t a work program, that this is merely a cultural exchange and that this person becomes a member of your family,” he says.
It’s crucial for families to understand the agreement. For Seligman, the confusion over whether an au pair is an employee or temporary family member creates a dangerous situation for both families and the au pairs.
“I think the one key point is to recognize that this is a work program and that you’re bringing someone into your home to work for you to be your employee, as a childcare worker,” he says. “And just like any other employee, these workers are allowed to negotiate for higher wages or for better treatment.”