Au pair rights: More protections, but at what cost to cultural exchange?

Riley Robinson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
French au pair Albane Richon (right) draws with Charlie Sterling Jan. 19, 2020, in Needham, Massachusetts. A federal court ruling on Dec. 2 determined that au pairs in the Bay State now fall under Massachusetts labor laws, and should be paid the higher state, rather than federal, minimum wage.

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Mariana Baptista from Brazil recently completed a year in Massachusetts as an au pair. 

She enjoyed her experience, but says that it was hard work to care for three children for nine hours a day. Some of her au pair friends had “big problems,” she explains in an email, including being left alone with kids for a weekend while parents traveled. 

Why We Wrote This

Are au pairs an important part of U.S. diplomacy, or low-wage workers who deserve more? As states strengthen employee rights and pay, host families ask, “Is this worth it?”

Legislators and courts are increasingly addressing the working conditions of au pairs. A Dec. 2 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit joins other legal action in the past year aimed at protecting au pair rights. In Massachusetts, for example, host families must now pay the higher state, rather than federal, minimum wage. They and the au pairs themselves are raising questions about the future of the program, wondering whether it is truly an important cultural exchange initiative, as the State Department says, or a guest worker program masquerading as internationalism. 

Nancy Riley, a single mom and technology executive from Medford, Massachusetts, is hosting an au pair from Brazil and says she wants the program to prosper. “It opens up your kids’ minds,” she says, “but it also opens up your minds as parents and really enriches your life experience.”        

When Johanna Kruse arrived in the United States from Germany as an au pair, she anticipated bonding with a U.S. family, traveling, and caring for a 6-year-old boy.

Ten days later, her plans were thrust into disarray when a federal court ruled that au pairs in Massachusetts are covered by state labor laws and included in the state’s Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, immediately entitling them to higher wages and overtime pay. 

Instead of celebrating, Ms. Kruse worried for weeks that she might need to find a new host family in another state or return home to Germany, since her host debated quitting the program due to the sudden and sharp increase in child care costs. 

Why We Wrote This

Are au pairs an important part of U.S. diplomacy, or low-wage workers who deserve more? As states strengthen employee rights and pay, host families ask, “Is this worth it?”

“I made the decision to be an au pair because I wanted to be a family member, to have someone around to show me your culture, to show me everything,” Ms. Kruse said at a lobbying event about the changes in early January. “Now, with the law, it destroys the relationship,” and the potential to be a family member. 

The Dec. 2 ruling by the 1st U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals joins other legal action in the past year aimed at protecting the rights of au pairs. Now, families and the au pairs themselves are raising questions about the future of the program and debating whether it is truly an important cultural exchange initiative, as the State Department says, or a guest worker program masquerading as internationalism. 

“The question is, what do [supporters] think the cultural component is for the au pairs?,” says Janie Chuang, a law professor at American University in Washington and author of the report, “The U.S. Au Pair Program: Labor Exploitation and the Myth of Cultural Exchange.”

Riley Robinson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Henry (left) and Charlie Sterling, play with their au pair, Albane Richon (center), and their mother, Maggie Sterling, Jan. 19, 2020.

Cultural Care Au Pair, an agency placing au pairs in the U.S. and a plaintiff in the 1st Circuit case, said in a statement to the Monitor that it plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. “We will continue to pursue a reversal of the ruling and are hopeful that the comprehensive federal regulations that govern the program will be recognized as controlling and exclusive,” the statement says in part.

In an amicus brief, the State Department called the au pair program, which started in 1986, “a valuable tool of U.S. foreign policy.”

In 2018, just over 20,000 au pairs, mostly women, came to the U.S. from countries across the world, according to State Department figures. The states hosting the highest number of au pairs, who visit the U.S. on J-1 cultural exchange visas, are California, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts. 

Mariana Baptista from Brazil recently completed a year as an au pair in the Bay State. She writes in an email that she has an “American family now” and praises her experience.

Yet it was hard work to care for three children for nine hours a day. Some of her au pair friends had “big problems,” including working more hours than the program allows without extra pay and being left alone with kids for a weekend while parents traveled. 

“There are a lot of people who have wonderful experiences ... but then there are au pairs with horrible experiences,” says Professor Chuang. The program “allows far too much discretion in terms of what the families can do and allows far too much financial incentive to the agencies to not enforce regulations.” 

Riley Robinson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Thaty Oliveira moved to the U.S. from Brazil in 2003, when she became an au pair in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Besides starting her own business, she has worked with Matahari Women Workers' Center in Boston, which advocates for increased pay for au pairs.

Unrest over the au pair program dovetails with a burgeoning domestic workers’ movement in the U.S. Nine states have passed domestic worker bills of rights to protect workers such as house cleaners, nannies, and in-home health aides who are not covered by many U.S. labor laws and are among the lowest paid workers in the country. 

Among the states that have passed domestic protection laws some, like New York, specifically exclude au pairs. Others, including California, are silent on au pair status. Massachusetts is the first state with legal confirmation that au pairs are domestic workers. 

The 1st Circuit’s ruling, which also governs Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Puerto Rico, follows a June 2019 $65.5 million settlement in a Denver court of a class action lawsuit brought by former au pairs claiming they are underpaid and overworked.  

Julia Beebe, lead organizer at Boston-based Matahari Women Workers’ Center, praises the 1st Circuit’s decision, which upheld an earlier ruling. 

“Anyone who is taking care of kids knows it’s very hard and very important, and if you’re doing it for 45 hours, and frankly even if you’re doing it for 40 or 35, that’s very much a job,” she says. The program “has taken the form of a work program and been advertised by the au pair agencies as cheap child care.” 

Ms. Beebe says Matahari hears from “many” current au pairs each month with grievances including working too many hours, not being given a proper room, and sexual assault.    

Financial drain on families

In Massachusetts, where child care is costly and difficult to come by, host families are seeing program costs rise dramatically. On top of that there are new requirements to log hours, create contracts, and add extra insurance protections. Families say the changes are jeopardizing the unique cultural parts of the program.  

Sonja Raslavicus, who lives in Newburyport, is hosting Ms. Kruse. The single mom studied abroad and hosted exchange students growing up. She wanted her son to learn another language, and also liked the idea of mentoring an au pair. 

Ms. Raslavicus works non-traditional hours at a medical clinic. She agonized over whether she should end her contract or cobble together a way to make it work by finding a new job or moving to New Hampshire. She has decided to stay in the program, but won’t participate again next year. 

“I feel like no one really understood the program,” Ms. Raslavicus said in an interview in the Hall of Flags in the Massachusetts State House, where she met legislators at the lobbying event in early January. “I’m all for people getting minimum wage – people who work for a living and have to go home and feed their children and pay their rent. But she’s living with us, we’re taking care of her.” 

Previously, Massachusetts families followed State Department regulations about au pair hours and pay. Those include working up to 45 hours per week at federal minimum wage of $7.25, with a maximum of 10 hours per day, for a minimum stipend of $195.75 per week, after a 40% deduction for room and board. Now, Massachusetts au pairs earn the state minimum wage of $12.75 per hour, plus time-and-half for overtime work. Deduction for room and board is $77 per week, which a number of families say is too low. There’s also uncertainty whether families can legally take it. 

Many host families cover additional costs such as cellphone fees, and pay upwards of $10,000 in agency fees to participate in the program. 

A different approach?

Ms. Chuang, the law professor, suggests reforming the au pair program by moving it from State Department oversight to the Department of Labor, where other international guest worker programs are already housed. 

“Right now au pairs can work up to 45 hours per week. That is overtime under U.S. law. To claim that’s not a work program, when they can work overtime ... is ridiculous,” she says. 

Nancy Riley, a technology executive from Medford, Massachusetts, is a single parent, hosting a male au pair from Brazil. She wants the program to prosper for the sake of her son and future families. 

“I think in general for families that’s a big piece of it, to welcome another culture into your home,” she says. “It opens up your kids’ minds, but it also opens up your minds as parents and really enriches your life experience.”   

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify where Sonja Raslavicus lives, and to correct the spelling of her last name in one instance. References to district court have also been changed to “1st Circuit.” 

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