The U.S. au-pair program is riddled with problems – and new documents show that the State Department might know more than it’s letting on.
By Zack Kopplin, March 27, 2017.
Juliana traveled here in 2015 from Brazil to become an au pair—a visiting domestic worker in a State Department program designed to build friendship between the United States and other countries. In return for light housework and child care, she would join an American family for a year, learning the language and culture. The private company that arranged her placement assured her she’d be treated with love and kindness.
Instead, Juliana says she worked illegally long hours and wasn’t paid; she was denied food, screamed at and was generally treated like “trash.” Her au pair company, Cultural Care Au Pair, the largest in the U.S, told me her alleged treatment was “unacceptable” and asked me for her name to investigate the situation. But Juliana says when she complained to the company’s representative at the time, she was told to be “flexible.”
Eventually, Juliana found a new host family, which assured her she’d be able to eat in the household. (Families are expected to provide three meals a day for their au pairs, according to the State Department.) But when she got there, she learned fruit, bread and milk were off limits because they were too expensive. “You need to make choices,” she recalls her new hosts saying, telling her she’d have to decide whether to buy food or spend her meager stipend on something else. After that, Juliana gave up and went back to Brazil. “They think we are slaves,” she says. (Like most au pairs interviewed for this article, Juliana used a pseudonym because she fears retaliation.)
Many of the roughly 17,500 au pairs who live and work in the United States every year have positive experiences. But according to a dozen current and former au pairs as well as former au pair company employees, ordeals like Juliana’s aren’t unusual, either. They relay horror stories of au pairs who are overworked, humiliated, refused meals, threatened with arrest and deportation—even victims of theft. Worst of all, they say, complaining about exploitative, unsafe working conditions rarely make any difference. Sometimes, reporting abuse makes the situation worse.
Of course, all stories have two sides, and it’s hard to know what really happens behind a family’s closed doors. All specific allegations against au pair companies in this article were provided to the ones involved. They addressed some incidents but often said they were unable to comment on specific allegations without knowing au pair names. To avoid exposing au pairs, Politico Magazine didn’t contact families; instead, families aren’t named. But the real problem isn’t any particular families—it’s that the State Department and the au pair companies it contracts to seem to have very little interest in finding out what might be going wrong, or in taking action when they do.
Companies and their advocates disagree with that diagnosis. “The goal of the program is for young men and women to come to the United States and have a positive cultural exchange experience,” said Ilir Zherka, executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange, an advocacy organization representing 12 au pair companies, including Culture Care. “A critical element of the program are the various support resources sponsors provide, including local representatives, dedicated regional staff and 24-hour emergency contact lines.”
But in fact, the vast majority of complaints coming from au pairs appears to disappear into a bureaucratic black hole, where they aren’t thoroughly investigated or even publicly reported. A State Department spokesman told Politico Magazine it received 62 complaints from au pairs and families in 2015. But according to a State Department internal analysis of the program obtained by Politico Magazine, that’s inaccurate: Au pair agencies received and reported to the government more than 3,500 incidents that year.
All this casts a shadow over a government program bringing thousands of domestic workers, mostly young women, to the United States each year. It was designed to showcase American values and generate international goodwill. But how can it achieve that when worker protections are minimal and oversight is scarce, and as a result, many of these women claim to suffer the worst that America has to offer?
The au pair program, founded in 1986 under the auspices of promoting diplomacy and cultural exchange, seems benign enough. Au pairs come to America on a J-1 visa, which allows nonimmigrant visitors like camp counselors and professors to work in the U.S. They typically stay for one year, living with a family and providing child care. The State Department contracts 16 private companies, or sponsors, to handle the nuts and bolts of the program, including recruiting, training and placing au pairs with families. It’s a “mutually rewarding, intercultural opportunity,” says a State Department brochure.
But the system has always had critics. Initially, it was run out of the now-defunct U.S. Information Agency, which advocated reforming the program because the work hours were too long for it to be classified as a cultural exchange. (Congress then passed legislation to prevent the agency from limiting work hours.) In 1990, the General Accounting Office, a congressional watchdog agency, concluded au pairs shouldn’t receive J-1 visas, saying it was inappropriate to bring workers to the U.S. under this visa because it wasn’t meant for labor programs. In 2012, a State Department Inspector General report criticized the entire J-1 visa program, because sanctioning sponsors who break the rules “rarely results in meaningful consequences.” The report recommended transferring oversight of the au pair program to the Department of Labor, and said the program had “significant issues.”
In 2013, the Senate debated a bill that would have prohibited companies from charging au pairs recruitment fees, which can range from $500 to $3,000 and can leave au pairs in debt. (Au pair companies also charge families roughly $8,000 per au pair.) “This program is a scam,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, during Senate debate over the au pair reform bill.“It is not a cultural-exchange program.” But the agencies lobbied vigorously against the measure; Congress voted it down.
This [au pair] program is a scam,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2013.“It is not a cultural-exchange program.”
Most higher profile recent controversies involve wages. Au pair companies set au pair wages at $195.75 per week for 45 hours of work, or $4.35 an hour—a number that comes from subtracting 40 percent from federal minimum wage for room and board. Labor rights organizations call this a legally dubious arrangement for several reasons, including because deducting housing costs in programs where providing housing primarily benefits the employer (like the au pair program) isn’t allowed by law. In 2015, several au pairs sued 15 companies (one company joined the program after the suit was filed) in a Federal District Court in Colorado, claiming they were illegally denied full minimum wage and au pair companies engage in illegal price fixing. “Our clients allege [their wages have] been fixed by anti-competitive conduct, maintained through fraud, and violates federal, state and local wage and hour laws,” said Nina DiSalvo, executive director of the nonprofit Towards Justice, which is representing the au pairs. The case is still pending.
There’s another lawsuit in Massachusetts. Theoretically, au pairs are entitled to the minimum wage in the state where they live, which can be higher than the federal minimum wage. But even though that rule is advertised in State Department materials for au pairs, until recently, no state enforced it. In 2015, the Massachusetts Legislature passed workers rights legislation entitling au pairs to that state’s $11 minimum wage plus overtime (with a situational deduction for room and board that is much less than 40 percent). Cultural Care Au Pair sued to block the law, arguing au pairs aren’t “domestic workers” and provide only “limited child care services,” and therefore aren’t entitled to the minimum wage. x“Because au pairs are protected by the [Fair Labor Standards Act], they are protected by state minimum wage laws as well,” wrote the Massachusetts attorney general’s office in its legal response to Cultural Care’s lawsuit. The office argues au pairs are entitled to expanded labor rights in many areas. But it’s unclear how many au pairs are contacting the Massachusetts attorney general’s office to enforce their rights. The case is still ongoing.
But these attempts at reform don’t address the program’s biggest problem. The au pairs I spoke with said a raise would be nice, but the real issue is that some hosts ignore already existing regulations—and so do the au pair companies supposedly responsible for their well-being.
The most common complaint is overwork. Hours for au pairs are capped at 45 per week and 10 a day. They are entitled to weekends off every month and two weeks of paid vacation. But many, like Juliana, are asked to work more than that. In fact, extra hours are “pretty much an expectation,” says Judy Bitting, a former local child care consultant for Cultural Care. (Local child care consultants are contracted by au pair companies to act as the on-the-ground contact for families and au pairs.)
It’s supposed to be easy for au pairs to complain to their agencies about this type of exploitation, through monthly meetings with local consultants. (The State Department has a complaint channel too, though au pairs more often go through their companies.) The au pairs I spoke to, however, say that when they raised issues, they got nowhere. In an annual evaluation, Itzel Reyes, an au pair who used her real name, told Cultural Care she regularly worked more than 45 hours a week. Her program director apologized but did nothing. Then the company resent the evaluation, “as if my answer might change the second time,” Reyes says.
Letters obtained by Politico Magazine show consultants urging au pairs to work additional hours or do work unrelated to child care. One consultant’s guide for new au pairs suggests doing extra child care during their time off, like when they go to a restaurant with the family. “You are not a guest, you are a part of the family,” the guide says.
A few extra hours at family dinner might not sound all that bad. But it only gets worse from there. Jessica with AuPairCare—another au pair company—says her host father, “Steve,” monitored her birth control, interrogating her when she asked his wife to administer a contraceptive injection. “I had to explain my period to him,” she recalls. Jessica claims he was angry with her for spending free time with her boyfriend, rather than his family. After Steve accused her of sleeping with her boyfriend in his house, he fired her, telling her she had to be out of the house in a couple of days. When she called AuPairCare, they didn’t offer her a place to stay or even a ride from the house. “Call an Uber,” she says she was told. She says the company also denied her the chance to be placed with a new family.
Jessica believes her au pair company didn’t let her find new hosts because she owed Steve money for a plane ticket to visit family in Brazil. (Steve also owed her for the cost of her old cellphone that he’d traded in for an iPhone upgrade when she first arrived. She had returned the new phone after she was fired.) But after she repaid Steve a few weeks later, Jessica alleges he then stole $250 from a shared bank account he’d created for her when she arrived in America. She gave Politico Magazine an email she sent to Steve and AuPairCare staff containing pictures of her bank statements. Her money had been transferred to another account. She asked for it back. Nobody answered.
“The health, safety, and welfare of our au pairs and host families are paramount,” says Joanne Hritz, AuPairCare’s director of marketing, in response to Jessica’s account. Stories have “two sides.” Hritz was unwilling to comment more without Jessica’s real name. “In order for AuPairCare to investigate this we need to know the full name of the au pair and host family,” she says.
And yet, the au pairs I spoke to told me they and their fellow au pairs feel that the agencies aren’t particularly interested in listening to their sides, or in grappling with the messy stories they hear. In most complaints, the companies put the onus on the au pair, giving them two weeks to find a new family if a mediation process with the consultant doesn’t work. If they fail to find new hosts, their visas are canceled. The sponsors then have total discretion to label the au pairs either “inactive” or “terminated” in a Department of Homeland Security database. A “terminated” label jeopardizes their chances of getting a U.S. visa in the future. “The State Department does not monitor the accuracy of these designations [by au pair companies],” wrote Janie Chuang, a law professor at American University, in a 2013 article about au pairs in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. Fired au pairs may also have to pay for their plane tickets home. These are all factors that can make au pairs reluctant to complain about maltreatment.
Kate, a former au pair, says her company even sent her home early before her allotted time to find a new host family had run out because “they didn’t feel like I would find a match.” Although she lacked the necessary training, she’d been assigned a special-needs child who she says kicked and bit her. “I tried talking to [the family] about it, but they wouldn’t listen,” she says. “Even the agency didn’t [listen].”
Liz Warrick, another former Cultural Care consultant, says one of her au pairs was sent home after the host mother told police the au pair had shaken her baby. A few days later, the mother admitted to social service workers the accusation was false. “How else was I able to get her out of my home?” Warwick says the mom said. Why did she want her gone? The mother admitted she’d been unable to overcome a language barrier with the au pair.
And what happens to the families involved in an au pair complaint? Bitting claims they are rarely removed from the program. She says her company even gave au pairs to families she told them shouldn’t be hosts. “The company said it was a waste of my time” to prevent abuse. (Cultural Care disputes this, saying it removes families who violate rules. “We have ended relationships with host families, specifically if there is a flagrant violation of the regulations or program rules,” it says.) Without Cultural Care’s help in resolving exploitative situations, Bitting says, “my hands were tied.” Au pairs “would beg me not to go back [to talk] to the family.” They feared retaliation.
Ask the State Department and they’ll tell you incidents like these are isolated and not indicative of systemic issues. “The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program today is stronger than ever, and we continually strive to improve it,” Nathan Arnold, a State Department spokesman, told me.
According to the State Department’s public statements, there is almost no recorded abuse in the program. While acknowledging “not every incident will be reported,” Arnold said just 218 complaints—from families, companies and au pairs—were recorded from 2013 to November 2016, with 62 complaints in 2015 alone. The Washington Post reported similar numbers in November, based on what it had been told by the State Department. Companies are “required to report [to the State Department] any incidents involving or alleging a crime of moral turpitude or violence,” Arnold assured me, plus “any serious problem or controversy,” meaning anything worse than “lost luggage” or “missed flights.”
The problem? These numbers are incorrect—according to the State Department itself. Every year, au pair agencies provide the government with a “summation of all complaints” by au pairs and families. The State Department’s 2015 Au Pair Program Annual Reports Analysis, a previously unreleased document obtained by Politico Magazine, states that not 62, but a full “3,505 complaints were received by sponsors” from au pairs, families or both during that year.
Confronted with this 3,443-complaint discrepancy, Arnold clarified: The first set of complaints included those reported by parties only “other than a sponsor”—meaning directly to the government. (That was after the spokesperson had explicitly confirmed those numbers were the full set of complaints, including those “reported through sponsors.”)
These higher numbers have never been publicly reported. And what has the government done about them? Not much, according to Arnold. Most “are classified as issues that do not require State Department intervention,” he told me. Many complaints are vaguely labeled and described only in terms like “incompatibility and/or personality conflict.” Mostly, the issues were resolved when au pairs were fired or placed with new families. Families were removed from the program in just 4 percent of incidents.
According to the 2015 report, “40% of complaints were initiated by both au pairs and host families; 30% of complaints were initiated by au pairs; 30% of complaints were initiated by host families. These labels aren’t cut and dry. Family complaints could be sparked by things like an au pair refusing to work extra hours or asking to be paid on time. Jessica’s situation, for example, would be considered a family complaint.
Politico Magazine was unable to uncover details about specific complaints. It’s unclear, for example, how Juliana or Jessica’s stories were characterized, if at all—whether they would be labeled a “personality conflict” or something more serious. (The State Department estimates it will respond to Politico Magazine’s Freedom of Information request for full audits of the program, which could provide clarity, in 2018.)
Despite assurances that the exchange is “stronger than ever,” State Department documents also indicate the government is aware of some of its major problems. The program analysis from 2014, also obtained by Politico Magazine, doesn’t contain specific complaint numbers from the au pair agencies, but it did do say that in “many of the audits [au pair companies are required to submit to the government]” au pairs reported working extra hours.
Au pairs are sold a cultural experience, but families are looking for cheap labor.
At the heart of the program’s problem is a difference in expectations. Companies “market the program differently to host families and to au pairs,” the 2014 analysis notes. “For host families, the program is commonly marketed as an affordable, reliable and flexible way to obtain quality child care. For au pairs, the program is often advertised as an easy way to live with an American family, learn about American culture, take classes and earn some money.” In other words: Au pairs are sold a cultural experience, but families are looking for cheap labor.
But the biggest problem might be that the State Department seems content to live and let live. It has just 30 staff members dedicated to monitoring the entire J-1 program for compliance with rules. (Over 375,000 J-1 visas were issued in 2016.) And while those 30 employees look into the small number of cases reported to the State Department’s hotline, it’s clear they don’t have the time or manpower to review the thousands of other complaints. For the most part, the government trusts au pair companies—businesses that have a financial interest in the continuation of the program in its current form—to regulate themselves. (When asked if the State Department ever looks into complaints reported by companies to see whether they were handled properly, Arnold did not answer. “Each situation is unique and decisions on how to respond necessarily vary,” he said.) Arnold said the State Department is unaware of any widespread pattern of abuse that would require intervening with companies. “This is a mutual partnership built on trust and transparency,” he said of State’s relationship with sponsors.
Even when it comes to complaints reported directly to the State Department, I saw no evidence the government takes meaningful action. Sets of complaints from 2012 and 2013 are revealed in transcripts of calls made to the State Department’s abuse hotline that was uploaded to the State Department’s online FOIA library. According to one transcript, an anonymous au pair told the State Department her host mother used threats of deportation to hold her in the house against her will, forcing her to work illegally long hours uncompensated. When the au pair complained to her local consultant, she says she was told the company couldn’t help because she had “signed a contract.” A different complaint alleged an au pair was being forced to work over 100 hours a week. Another au pair said she was made to sleep in her family’s laundry room like a “dog” and that her company hadn’t checked in on her. The FOIA library did not include information on how these cases were resolved, but we do know one thing: The au pair companies involved were not sanctioned. While Arnold assured me that “the Department may impose sanctions on a sponsor when it is determined that sponsor has violated the regulations and those violations warrant sanctions,” he also told me the last time any company was sanctioned was in 2006, when five companies received “lesser sanctions” for “inadequate management of educational component.”
It’s not exactly a portrait of heavy oversight. The State Department couldn’t even tell me how many complaints sponsors reported in years other than 2015; the government has not compiled those numbers, even though the sponsors are required to report them every year. (State also refused requests to release raw data submitted by individual companies.) That doesn’t mean the government isn’t paying attention, Arnold insists. For example, the State Department holds “meet-and-greets” around the country, where au pairs are encouraged to talk to State Department officials (without their sponsors) about their experiences. But a few meet-and-greets doesn’t help thousands of au pairs with issues. Worse, the au pairs I spoke to for this story didn’t feel safe complaining to the State Department, in fear that their complaints would get back to their host families or their au pair companies. “The notion that whatever information is gained from a complaint might lead to possible sanctions against an au pair agency offers little incentive for au pairs to assume the risk of reporting,” writes Chuang, the AU law professor.
For a program designed to enhance the way America is perceived in the world, the au pair exchange clearly has a long way to go. Sure, many au pairs have good relationships with their host families, and lax enforcement isn’t a problem for them. But good experiences aren’t guaranteed. And when a host family does want to flout the rules, who’s to stop it if the State Department isn’t watching?
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