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Have au pairs been exploited as a cheap source of labor?

Thousands of young people are admitted each year to the U.S. as cultural exchange participants through the J-1 visa program, often to work as live-in childcare providers known as au pairs. Now, a lawsuit lodged on behalf of 90,000 current and former au pairs alleges sponsor agencies are exploiting the program as a source for cheap migrant labor. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Ali Petschek is a stay at home mom in New Rochelle, New York. She has three boys ages 1 through 8. She says she’s enjoyed hosting seven different au pairs from all over the world over the last 6 years.

    Petschek estimates she and her husband Charles have spent roughly $20,000 a year on the au pairs who work 45 hours a week. She says that kind of money would get them only about three to four days a week of part-time childcare from a nanny or babysitter.

  • ALI PETSCHEK:

    Getting help helped our family to function better, I’ll say. But the other thing that really interested me about the au pair program was the cultural exchange part of it.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    21-year-old Marisol Pelaez Jaquez is from Mexico and works for Petschek and her husband. She is one of the roughly 20-thousand college aged individuals, mostly women, who work as au pairs for U.S. families. Both the family and Marisol paid fees to the sponsor agency to participate in the au pair program.

  • MARISOL PELAEZ JAQUEZ:

    I just think, like, it’s an experience that, like, helps you grow up so much ’cause, like, you’re completely out of like, your comfort zone. And you get to see another side, like, another culture, and another family, and another tradition.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Marisol is working, but is being an au pair actually a job? That question is at the heart of a class action lawsuit that threatens to upend the way the entire au pair system operates.

    The U.S. Department of State runs the au pair program, not as a labor program, but as a cultural exchange program. It contracts with 16 private sponsor agencies to recruit au pairs, match them with host families, and make sure everyone understands and follows the rules.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Do you think most people see this as a cultural exchange program? Or do most host families see this as a source of childcare?

  • ALI PETSCHEK:

    I think the majority of host parents do see it as a cultural exchange. ‘Cause I really don’t think it works if you don’t. Otherwise, I think both sides will be unhappy.” ‘Cause these are not professionals. And I’ve been told by my au pairs that the sponsor agencies play up the fun aspect of it.

  • MARISOL PELAEZ JAQUEZ:

    I think Ali was very honest. And she was like, “Look, workin’ with kids, it’s hard. Like, it’s not the same as babysitting two hours. The fact that you’re with them for a whole day, it’s really tough.”

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    One of the regulations requires employers to adhere to Department of Labor rules regarding au pair wages.

    The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. However, sponsor agencies say families are allowed to deduct 40% for the food and housing they provide, meaning Marisol’s pay works out to $4.35 an hour, or $195.75 a week.

    That pay rate is at the center of the lawsuit–representing 90,000 current and former au pairs. The suit claims that rather than being cultural ambassadors, au pairs are cheap migrant labor, exploited by a system that grossly underpays them for what amounts to ordinary domestic employment.

    The defendants in the suit are 15 of the 16 agencies charged with oversight of the program. The agencies deny that au pairs are exploited.

  • AI JEN POO:

    We’re talking about a workforce that’s working incredibly hard and still not able to make ends meet doing this work.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Ai-jen Poo is director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which advocates on behalf of more than 20,000 members who work inside homes, including au pairs.

  • AI-JEN POO:

    They are here working as caregivers in the homes of the families who’ve hired them. These women who are here on J-1 visas have really been taken advantage of in many cases and treated as less than real workers.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Massachusetts has more than 1500 au pairs. Poo’s organization co-authored a report that surveyed former au pairs here at Boston’s Matahari Womens’ Workers Center about their experiences with the program…

    Two of the women now work as nannies, and asked us to conceal their identities out of fear of retaliation and loss of their livelihoods.

  • MELISSA:

    And it’s just, like, using you. ‘You are here to serve me.’ That’s how I felt most of the time.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Both these women say they went thousands of dollars into debt to pay for the interview fees and applications to get in the au pair program. They each claim that host families routinely asked them to work illegal overtime hours, and that the sponsor agencies, and the federal government, were not paying attention.

  • LAURA:

    This family make me work up to 65 hours a week, promise me that they will pay me for the extra hours that I was working. I’d rather to have more money to be able to save. And that’s what I did. Also, those extra time that I was working, I was doing housekeeping. It was nothing related of childcare.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    She says her host family never paid her for those extra hours.

  • Among other things, the suit filed in 2014 alleges that:

    You can’t legally deduct 40% from the minimum wage for room and board if the program requires au pairs to live with families, which it does.

    That agencies colluded to keep au pair wages low. An allegation they deny.

    And that at least four of the agencies violated federal labor rules that say families must pay their state’s minimum wage if it is higher than the federal minimum wage.

    A spokesperson for one of the agencies, Cultural Care Au Pair, disputes that contention. He sent PBS Newshour Weekend the most recent State Department notice regarding stipends, which is from 2007. He says the State Department has never told the sponsor agencies that employers must meet state minimum wage requirements. The State Department, however, told Newshour Weekend sponsors must adhere to state and local laws.

    Among other things, the plaintiffs’ attorneys are asking for what they say are unpaid wages and the return of illegal deductions. They estimate total damages at more than $2.5 billion.

    PBS NewsHour Weekend reached out to all 15 of the 16 agencies named in the suit, but none were willing to speak to us in an interview.

  • CV HARQUAIL:

    There is so much that’s wrong about the allegations of the lawsuit that it’s hard to know where to begin.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    CV Harquail is the founder of Au Pair Mom, a blog for host families. She says since au pairs are provided with housing, food, and many amenities, the weekly stipend usually just serves as pocket money, and that it was not designed to be a wage.

    She also believes that ultimately, the lawsuit was spurred by what she considers to be the State Department’s lack of clarity.

  • CV HARQUAIL:

    It isn’t the agencies who’ve set the minimum wage requirement. I think that what would really change the program one way or another would be clearer and more expansive regulation. Or more deliberate and concerned oversight governmentally.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    The State Department does not spell out how federal wage regulations should specifically apply to au pairs. In a statement to NewsHour Weekend, it also declined to weigh in on that 40% deduction for room and board. They say simply that the sponsor agencies should make sure families understand their obligations.

    Usually wages are the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor, but it doesn’t oversee the program, one change domestic worker rights advocate Ai-jen Poo believes is necessary.

  • AI JEN POO:

    It is just hugely challenging for most American families to afford childcare. So we need more care. But our policies and our programs haven’t caught up to that. I think the answer is more of a systemic answer that allows for families to be able to afford childcare much more universally, rather than take advantage of these caregivers who are here for learning and education and cultural exchange, and end up getting exploited with poverty wages.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Host mom Ali Petschek says there is no question the au pair program has been an immersive cultural experience for her family. On this day, she, Marisol and the boys were welcoming back a former au pair who is visiting from Germany.

  • ALI PETSCHEK:

    Honestly, she’s like a member of our family. I’m still in touch with all my au pairs, even the ones who didn’t work out. They’ve become like my daughters, which is kinda nice. ‘Cause I only have sons.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    A trial by jury for the class action lawsuit is set for next February. Petschek says she is watching developments closely.

  • ALI PETSCHEK:

    I’m conflicted. I can see absolutely why they would think they’re not getting paid very much. But on the other hand, if they win their lawsuit and the agency passes that increase on to us, I can see a lot of families dropping out of the au pair program and not being able to continue. And I think that would be a shame.

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