Tens of Thousands of Au Pairs Sue, Claiming Unfair Wages

Tens of Thousands of Au Pairs Sue, Claiming Unfair Wages

By: Sara Randazzo

The Wall Street Journal

   A class-action lawsuit involving 91,000 au pairs is making the case that the longstanding U.S. program violates federal and state wage laws and exploits young people traveling from abroad to care for American children.

   A federal judge in Denver recently allowed multiple classes of au pairs to join together to press antitrust, fraud and other claims against organizations designated by the U.S. State Department to sponsor the au pair program. The ruling clears the way for the 3 1/2-year-old case to continue toward trial.
 
 Billed as a cultural-exchange program, au pairs are asked to provide 45 hours of child-care work per week for a $195.75 weekly stipend and small education allowance, as well as housing and meals.
   The lawsuit alleges the 15 sponsor agencies conspired to set the same wage nationwide, which is far less than other child-care options and doesn’t meet minimum wage, and discouraged families from paying more. The defendants—some for-profit, some nonprofit—have argued they follow State Department guidelines on pay and that the $4.35-an-hour rate doesn’t include the substantial benefit of being housed and fed while on assignment.
   
   The agencies didn’t respond to requests for comment or declined to comment. One defendant, Go Au Pair, said in a 2015 filing the “lawsuit attacks the very existence of our nation’s au pair program” and that the grievances should be directed at the federal government instead.
   
   In court filings, the au pair agencies point to higher wages offered to some more experienced au pairs, and they say they shouldn’t be on the hook because they aren’t the au pairs’ legal employers.
 
    The State Department, which isn’t a party to the suit, has said $195.75 is the weekly minimum and that the sponsors must comply with minimum-wage laws. The lawsuit says the sponsors aren’t meeting that threshold.
 
    Au pairs, typically women aged 18 to 26 from Europe, Latin America and Asia, fall under the J-1 visa program, created as a cultural exchange that also covers visiting students, camp counselors and some other short-term visitors. As The Wall Street Journal reported in August, the Trump administration is considering eliminating or restricting several types of J-1 visas, including au pairs.
 
    Dawn Smalls, a partner at Boies Schiller Flexner LLP who is representing the au pairs, said she considers the marketing behind the program inconsistent. For the prospective au pairs, the program is touted as a life-changing cultural exchange to help improve language skills and be embraced by a new family. For families signing up, Ms. Smalls said, it is often marketed as a low-cost domestic-worker program.
 
 “They’re not very compatible in terms of expectations,” Ms. Smalls said.
   The sponsors have said in court filings that most participants aren’t drawn to the program to earn money, but instead because of a desire to live in the U.S., learn English and for the cultural opportunities.
   Sarah Azuela, who is part of the class action, still remembers the au pair advertisement that she saw on her university campus in Mexico, promising that being an au pair would be the best year of her life. Instead, she said, it turned into one of the worst.
 
   At her first home in Boston, she said she had to use her wages for food because the family forbade her from eating much of what they bought, and didn’t give her access to a car as promised. When that relationship frayed, she briefly went to a family in Maryland, then to a home in Virginia, where in addition to caring for three children she said she cleaned the three-story house, packed boxes, did yard work and prepared meals, working far more than the 45 hours a week.
 
  “If they tell us, this is a job, not an exchange program, that would have been completely different,” said Ms. Azuela, 27, who met her now-husband while an au pair and who now works in Wisconsin as a medical interpreter. She said she and other au pairs thought they would travel, study and learn, but instead “end up being the maids that also take care of the kids.”
 
   Many families and au pairs have positive experiences, but critics say the program can be susceptible to abuse.
   
   Au pairs initiated the lawsuit in November 2014, alleging the formation of a price-fixing cartel to pay illegal wages dates to the inception of the au pair program in the U.S. in 1986.
 
    The complaint said some agencies specifically advertise au pairs as cheap alternatives to nannies or day care and tell prospective au pairs that the price is fixed by the government and to be wary of families offering to pay more.
   
   Linda Elizabeth, who also is part of the litigation, first came to the U.S. from Germany in 2007 to serve as an au pair for two sets of twins. Happy with her experience, she returned in 2013 and cared for twins in two more families—but found a much different situation. Both treated her like hired help, she said, and the first family didn’t let her leave the house during the week.
 
    Having better pay, Ms. Elizabeth said, could help weed out the families looking to use the system as cheap child care and instead limit it to those committed to the cultural-exchange aspect of the program.
 
   “If you’re part of a family, then money is not your main focus,” said Ms. Elizabeth, now an international operations specialist in Texas. “If you’re treated like an employee, this changes.”
Write to Sara Randazzo at sara.randazzo@wsj.com