Do Au Pairs need a ‘bill of rights’?

by cv harquail on April 30, 2010

A reader sent me a link to an article in Slate, about a proposed ‘Bill of Rights” for domestic workers in New York State. (You can read the article in detail, here.)

The proposed legislation would guarantee New York’s 200,000 domestic workers sick days, overtime, a day of rest, protection under discrimination laws, and notice before termination.

I think that a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is a great idea. There are too many stories of caregivers (mostly women) being taken advantage of. When we think about the power differential between employing families and caregivers themselves, you can appreciate how hard it might be for an individual caregiver to assert her or his rights without a framework that legitimates these rights and also provides for punishment when employers violate these rights.

And, I’m glad that au pairs don’t need a bill of rights. Their rights are already protected (in as much as laws or codes can prevent behavior) by the program regulations.

All of us host parents have heard stories of au pairs who’ve been taken advantage of, and nannies and other caregivers who have been taken advantage of, by selfish or otherwise abusive host parents & employers. Although we hear these stories, we know that abuses are limited becuase au pairs are regulated by the State Department and supervised by au pair agencies. Thus, au pairs theoretically have the sick leave, sick pay, and termination notice that a bill of rights would otherwise guarantee them.

201004301340.jpgNotably, au pairs do not have mandated overtime pay, because overtime is against the regulations.

These protections for au pairs themselves are a big reason why I appreciate the Au Pair Program. I also appreciate my local counsel’s diligence in contacting me and my au pairs regularly, and especially for meeting with me and our incoming au pair to go over the rules and the contract. I also appreciate the agency managing immigration, insurance, travel, training, and socialization.

This is not to say that local counselors are always diligent in making sure that rules are followed, or that agencies always earn their fees by executing their part of the program well.  But, in general, these protections make me feel more comfortable about having au pair caregivers.

Laws and program regulations give us a helpful structure by distinguishing between what’s wrong and what’s expected, and by giving everyone the same understanding of basic expectations.

There is a lot of variation within these regulations, though, and that’s one of the reasons our conversations here are so important. Yes, sometimes we talk about breaking the rules, but always with the intent of guiding other host partners to do this in a just way, with explicit agreement and sensitivity to downsides.

And more often, we talk about how to do the au pair relationship thing well, so that it works for all parties. Somehow, the regulatory framework takes care of the basics, so that we are free to talk with more energy not about being legal, but about being fair, and not about what rules should be, but about what principles should guide us.

When someone else takes care of base pay, insurance, and visas, we are free to take care of cultural exchanging, welcoming someone into our families, and supporting them during this part of their life adventure.

(I guess you might call this my AuPairAgency Appreciation post. ;-) )

Thanks for the tip, A. P.!

Image: Acme theatrical agency from Dystopos


Previous au pair May 1, 2010 at 7:55 am

I think the rights for au pairs are amazing. I was in a difficult position and my agency supported me 100 % and I had full knowledge of what my rights were. I feel that there are already enough rights in place for the employment however if host families try to abuse the au pairs rights the au pair shouldnt be shy about saying she feels uncomfortable about it nor should she be bullied to believe its okay. If the au pair feels she is working beyond what is expected of the program you would think she would contact her LCC?

Darthastewart May 1, 2010 at 9:59 pm

She absolutely should contact her LCC. Otherwise, how will the agency do anything?

Angie May 2, 2010 at 12:57 am

We chose our agency because we felt they protected the au pair as well as the host family – the local coordinator gave us examples of rematched au pairs and families that didn’t work out with the program as well as au pairs when we probed for possible problems.

Dawn May 3, 2010 at 7:48 am

I don’t think that there needs to be any additional legislation or regulation outlining an au pair Bill of Rights, but I think it would be a fabulous thing for each agency to develop and distribute. I’ve heard too many stories from my AP’s friends about what I would consider “mistreatment” by their host families, but they don’t know whether their situations are normal (and they just had unreasonable expectations), or whether it’s something they should contact their LCC about. A clear listing as to what kind of treatment is reasonable to expect would be very helpful in such circumstances.

(As one example, in a program where the AP expects to be “part of the family,” is it okay for the family to literally LOCK their “family” refrigerator, and have their AP eat completely different food than the rest of the family eats — food of a lesser quality than the family purchases for themselves? I don’t think so, but my AP’s friend who is in this situation is afraid to rock the boat by talking to her LCC about it.)

cv harquail May 3, 2010 at 10:06 am

Hi Dawn,
I’ve set up your question as a post for later today! Thanks for the idea. cv

AP May 3, 2010 at 1:52 pm

CV, thanks for posting this. I’m the sender and you put into words exactly what I was thinking when I read the article. One of the reasons we went with the au pair program was because we liked the way there are rules to protect the young women and men. I also liked that someone else took care of the visas, insurance, etc.
I was once a receptionist at a law firm where it seemed like everyone paid their nannies “off the books” and I would not have been comfortable doing that.

cv harquail May 3, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Thank you for bringing this to the group! I agree with you about the bonus of general legality… the programs make it so much easier to ‘do the right thing’ by the au pairs…. cvh

Anonymous May 29, 2010 at 1:41 am

My girlfriend is an Au Pair and today she worked 14 hours without a warning. She says that if she mentions any discomfort to her LCC she will call the host family directly. The problem with this is she feels that she may have to go home if the family doesn’t work out.
This is not the only problem. The family decided to move to another state after the contracts had been signed and again, my girlfriend felt that if she didn’t go she would have 2 weeks to be chosen by a family online or be sent home. Can anyone help us? She’s miserable and not able to complete the English course she signed up for here. Thanks for your time.

DarthaStewart May 29, 2010 at 8:42 am

First question- is not being able to finish the year really horrible? I mean truly? Is it the end of the world? I’d guess not. It’s certainly not ideal.

Realistically, your friend needs to talk to the LCC and host family. 14 hours in a day is not good. Was this an emergency? Or something they do all the time? IMO.. Emergency is one thing… Like someone is hospitalized, and family is in crisis mode. If it’s work, then the family needs backup care. I’m not sure about the moving. As long as the family is moving to a service area covered by the agency, they can ask the au-pair to go with them.

With regards to talking to the LCC and HF, she needs to write down her concerns, and keep it to like 2 issues. (any more than that, and it’ll get lost.) Does your friend have regular time to talk to the HF and air her concerns?

Calif Mom May 29, 2010 at 9:17 am

It seems that this au pair has been here long enough to have made friends (including a good friend like you who will find this blog and post on her behalf). So I can see where moving out of the area would be a big disappointment and disruption. I think it’s within the rules of the program.

DS gives excellent advice above.

I can see where an AP wouldn’t want to move with a family that is taking advantage of her. An anticipated move is one thing, but if they are moving because of job changes, it’s a tough job market right now and they may not have a choice. Was the 14-hour day because the family is getting ready to move? There are situations that require flexibility, but situations like that also require communication between the host and the au pair, and it sounds like that is not happening here.

Yes, once an au pair is in rematch both parties have 2 weeks to find replacements. Some agencies and counselors are a bit more flexible and will work hard to find a new family.

Also, it sounds absolutely appropriate for the counselor to call the HF to find out what was going on–it’s not okay for the family to have her work 14 hours, and the counselor would be looking out for the best interests of the au pair by calling the family.

I agree that 2 big concerns are about the right number to bring forward at this time, in order to not dilute their importance, and to keep the conversation focused on solving those big problems.

People fear the unknown more than they fear “change”, and it sounds like your friend is 1) very afraid right now and 2) doesn’t have enough information 3) is intimidated and feeling powerless. She needs to recognize that this family obviously needs her help caring for the kids, and that she has some rights here, and needs to advocate for herself. To not take a step now, by calling her counselor, she is guaranteed to continue feeling miserable and hopeless, and that’s not a good thing. By not taking action, she is choosing to not help shape the direction that future events are going to go. It’s hard to make that call, and there is some risk, but not making that call would be worse in the long run.

Best of luck to her, and thank you for looking for ideas that might help her.

cv harquail May 29, 2010 at 6:13 pm

I’m agreeing with both DS and CalifMom….

For the hours issue,
the number one thing is to go to the LCC. The LCC may call the family, but not necessarily with the intent to ‘rat out’ the AP. THe AP has a legit concern and the LCC should support the AP with that. If the LCC does not support the AP on the hours issue, the AP should call the agency directly.

For the class– that would be a real drag to be unable to complete a class b/c of a move. In this instance, the HF should reimburse the AP any extra money the AP has put out for the class, and the HF should make sure to pay — again– for another class in the new location. It’s the HF who is moving and making the AP lose her investment in the education, so the HF should make it ‘cost neutral’ to the AP… other than the work the AP has put into the class, which of course can’t be made up for. An alternative would be to have the HF do what we call in business “make her whole”… that means, if she can’t take another class to fulfill her requirement, the HF should reimburse the AP for the ‘completion fee’ that she will not receive since she hasn’t finished a class.

With regard to the move, the AP can ask for rematch on this grounds… and take her chances, if she’d rather try to stay in the area. Any new host family would be understanding that it’s a move (and not a bad attitude or bad driving) prompting the rematch, and the LCC should work really hard to help re-place the AP.

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