When the au pair decided to change families, she feared she was taking a major risk.
Since the fall, the Colombian woman in her mid-20s had been working in New York as an au pair, one of about 20,000 young people — mostly women — who come to the United States each year to live with families and take care of their children. Her yearlong contract wasn’t set to expire until late 2020, but one morning in mid-June, an argument with her host dad proved to be the breaking point of a tense home environment in quarantine.
“I can’t take these people anymore,” the au pair texted me in Spanish. “I want to get out of here today.” She reported the situation to her local coordinator and decided to leave, giving her two weeks to find a new family or return to Colombia. She hadn’t the slightest clue where she would end up next.
But the woman’s anxiety turned to surprise a few days later when she checked her email — she already had dozens of families across the country asking for interviews. Normally, the demand for au pairs already in the United States is not nearly as high, but something had changed: On June 22, the Trump administration issued an executive order suspending many foreign work visas at least until the end of this year. The order included the J-1 visa program, under which the au pair program, managed by the State Department, is categorized.
While the coronavirus pandemic had already made international travel difficult for many, the visa restrictions confirmed that new au pairs preparing to come to the United States wouldn’t be able to enter the country. The American families expecting them, often with working parents relying on the program as their primary source of child care, have been left scrambling to find replacements.
I spoke to nearly a dozen au pairs now in the country, and read the testimonies of many more on social media. They asked that their names not be used for this story, because they feared retaliation.
Many host parents have taken to unofficial forums on Facebook and other sites as an additional way to search for potential matches. That has created a frenzied social-media rush to woo the dwindling number of au pairs in the country who are still available.
“Pretty much everyone is saying it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll get an au pair,” said Erin Burkhart, a high-school teacher and two-time host mom in the Seattle area whose most recent au pair was set to join her family this summer from Germany. “The search process itself is a full-time job. Right now I will email everyone, I will reach out to everyone. I’ve had about 15 video chats in the last week.”
On the other end, while au pairs entering the program might speak with only two or three families in the initial interview process, in-country candidates are now hearing from 10, 20, sometimes closer to 50 prospective families. Even male au pairs, who often find it harder to match, are having an easy time. “Because they know they don’t have options, they are accepting males for their families too,” said an au pair from Brazil. “It’s not a big deal anymore.”
“Now we feel powerful,” the Colombian au pair said. “For once, we have a choice.”
Beach Houses and Skydiving Trips
Though administered by the State Department, the au pair program is operated by a network of private agencies (Cultural Care, Au Pair Care and Au Pair in America are a few big ones) that are in charge of vetting and matching au pairs with host families before they even set foot in the United States. On the ground, au pairs and host families deal more directly with local child care consultants, or L.C.C.s — regional counselors for the agencies who oversee day-to-day issues that arise in households.
If an in-country au pair wants to rematch, or switch families later on, her request must first be approved by the L.C.C. and the match ultimately approved by the agency.
But many introductory conversations are often carried out via unofficial channels — Facebook, WhatsApp and personal referrals between au pairs and families — to streamline the process. In recent weeks, these unofficial networks have become inundated.
Many in-country au pairs are now telling interested hosts that they are only willing to match in exchange for certain assurances, such as a personal car or payment upward of $400 a week. The minimum stipend for au pairs is $195.75 a week for a maximum of 45 hours of work, which is set by the State Department.
Host families have taken note of the new dynamic, too: Perusing some Facebook groups in mid-June, I found posts announcing benefits like unlimited public transportation passes, new cars, access to beach houses and skydiving trips, and double the pay. “We’re offering a 2000 USD sign-on bonus,” one parent wrote.
Not all host families are advertising perks, though, and not all au pairs are seeking them out. Coming from difficult working conditions with her first host family — including verbal abuse, additional chores like housecleaning and dog-grooming, and long hours for no extra pay — the Colombian au pair’s top priority was finding a family that would be the best fit.
Many host families feel similarly that the match must be right. “Offering benefits is fine, but people should not lose sight of the spirit of the program, which is cultural exchange and having an au pair join your family,” Ms. Burkhart said. “You’re going to eat dinner with this person regularly, spend holidays and vacations together for a year. It’s important to find a good fit.”
The current shortage of in-country au pairs caused by the one-two punch of quarantine and visa restrictions has further highlighted the lack of affordable child care in America, to the point where young foreigners expecting a year or two of cultural exchange have become lifelines, often unintentionally, for two-earner couples hoping to keep both their jobs.
Scrambling for Child Care
When the order was officially announced on June 22, au pairs from around the world, preparing to leave home for a year or longer in the United States, saw their dreams crushed.
“I was honestly heartbroken,” said Kristina Kobzeva, 23, from Kazakhstan. “My mom told me that I can’t wait so much time until next year, that I’ll have to quit the program and get married if the borders won’t be reopened this year for au pairs.”
Au pairs pay fees to participate in the program, navigating a complex web of foreign recruiters, satellite offices and U.S. agencies that vary on a case-by-case basis. Including expenses associated with the J-1 visa application, the total out-of-pocket enrollment cost for au pairs usually hovers between $1,000 and $2,000, much of which is often nonrefundable. “I worked at least three months nonstop, two jobs, in order to save the money for the program,” Ms. Kobzeva added. “Now I’m literally in the middle of nowhere with no idea what to do.”
Enrollment for American host families is more straightforward: Between agency program fees and required au pair expenses (such as weekly stipends, travel and food, and up to $500 toward a mandatory education requirement), the total minimum cost of the program is around $20,000 a year, regardless of the number of children in the family. If a family pays only the minimum, it’s affordable when compared with traditional child care options.
When the match is a good one, families and au pairs can come away with long-lasting relationships. “Child care is one aspect of it, but we’ve really appreciated the cultural exchange component,” said Dawn Gile, a lawyer and host mom in Maryland. “We were going to travel to Europe to go visit our former au pairs. We keep in touch with them, our girls had this exposure to foreign languages, culture, food — they’ve been so enriched by the au pair program.”
But the primary motivation, by far, for most families to host an au pair is the flexible and affordable child care. Now, as the coronavirus threatens to keep schools and day cares closed, and as traditional babysitting becomes complicated in a socially distanced world, live-in child care is even more appealing. That’s especially the case for essential workers — physicians and other health professionals, in particular — who rely on au pair support to maintain long hours during the pandemic.
Nearly a month after the initial rules were issued, the State Department announced that some au pairs — namely, those caring for the children of medical professionals involved in the fight against Covid-19, or children with medical or other special needs — would be granted an exception to the visa restrictions rule and be allowed to enter the country.
Military families, often on the move, are also among those most affected by the rule. “It’s frustrating in a lot of ways because military spouses try so hard to maintain a career despite the impact of their spouse’s service,” said Ms. Gile, whose husband is in the military and who also serves as president of the Military Spouse JD Network. Now that her next au pair is barred from entering the country, Ms. Gile fears the lack of child care will affect her ability to keep working. “This is just another setback in trying to maintain a career,” she said.
“There are a lot of parents who, because of this, will have to quit their jobs,” Ms. Burkhart added.
Rachel Block, a former World Bank economist and experienced host mom, put it more bluntly: “The main substitute is women working less and having to pull back from the work force.”
‘You Are Not Part of the Family’
There are fears that the rush of perks offered by families might cloud au pairs’ ability to select kind and properly qualified hosts. While many au pairs are treated with respect, many aren’t, as recent investigations and court cases have shown.
“Very soon, au pairs realize that while you can have a great, amazing relationship with a family, they are your boss, and you are their employee,” added the Colombian au pair. “You are not part of the family.”
Au pairs have reported working far more than 45 hours per week, and being berated by host parents; some have seen their food restricted, or their activities monitored by surveillance cameras. Afraid of being sent home early, many suffer in silence.
A Brazilian au pair in New Jersey who said she was verbally abused daily by her host’s children and was “basically a maid,” was afraid to ask for a switch. “There’s a lot of stories about girls getting kicked out of the house when they ask for a rematch,” she said.
When she reported the situation to her local agency counselor, she was told in an email to work things out or she would likely be sent home. Only after the host mom approved the rematch a month later, the au pair said, did the agency agree to facilitate a change.
These experiences are far from uncommon. A 2018 investigation by several labor-rights groups argued that the J-1 au pair program is a work program with little real opportunity for cultural exchange, and that au pairs should be protected as domestic workers.
“This is an employment relationship. The law has upheld that to be the case,” said Rocío Ávila, a senior lawyer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, one of the co-authors of the report. In December 2019, a Massachusetts court ruled that minimum-wage laws applied to au pairs in that state. As a result, in Massachusetts, the weekly cost of a full-time au pair rose from the roughly $200 minimum stipend ($4.35 per hour for 45 hours) to more than $500 in weekly wages, after deductions for meals and lodging.
“I think it’s the sponsor’s role to set the expectations of both the au pair and the host family,” said Jean Quinn, the director of Au Pair in America, an agency. “What we want are both families and au pairs to come with the right expectations. It doesn’t do anybody any good if that’s not the case,” she added. “I think we do a very good job at making it clear that this has to work for both sides in order for it to be a successful placement.”
Also key to au pair protections, labor advocates argue, is more government regulation: know-your-rights education for incoming au pairs, and a more streamlined system for complaints, independent of private agencies.
The Right Fit
As the matching frenzy continued, the Colombian au pair narrowed her dozens of options to just a handful of families. After her fourth day of nonstop interviews, she was triumphant. “I have a family!” she announced, smiling from ear to ear.
Ms. Burkhart was one of a few host parents who could say the same. “We just signed our au pair tonight :)” she wrote in an email.
The au pair was glad, in the end, that she hadn’t let herself be wooed by promises of cars or beach houses or more money, which could have been deceiving — because even for a complicated program that involves so many different actors, everything ultimately comes down to the quality of the match. “My sense is that this is a family that’s really going to care about me,” she said. And because she was here now, she could work with that.
Jordan Salama (@jordansalama19) is a writer whose essays and stories have appeared, most recently, in The New York Times, National Geographic and Smithsonian.