When an ‘Au Pair’ should really be a Nanny

by cv harquail on January 19, 2012

Sometimes you just don’t want to read the subject lines of the emails that show up in our AuPairMom emailbox. The email posted below came with the subject line, “Am I being taken advantage of?”. But, by the time the au pair finished telling her story, it was clear it the subjuct should have been “Help, I’m being exploited!”

I don’t want to assume that the family, described in the au pair email below, is trying to take advantage of their au pair. They seem to have a logic to their plan, but they also seem a bit clueless. For this au pair to address the problems, she’s going to need to teach the family about what an au pair relationship is in spirit, and what it is under the law. And, she’s got to teach them that (in the USA) if the caregiver is not here under an AuPair program, with an Au Pair contract, then she’s not an au pair but a Nanny.

This woman is a live in nanny, a nanny who does other tasks, but a nanny and not an au pair. And, she should be paid as such.unicorn.jpg

Here’s Emery’s email:

I am currently an au pair in the Northeast City for a wonderful family with two small kids. I really like it here, but my friends and family are wondering if I’m being taken advantage of, monetarily. It’s hard to know where to start, so I’ll start with my background.

I am 24, and from the US. I was an au pair once before, in the Netherlands, being paid 350 euros bi-monthly. I have been taking care of children regularly for more than 8 years, through babysitting and non-live-in nanny positions. I also worked as an assistant to a Children’s Librarian for 5 years. I have my Bachelor’s degree, a valid driver’s license and no criminal record. I consider myself more than qualified to handle this job.

With the family here in the Northeast City, we did not use an au pair service to find eachother (basically saving the family $150 a week). The family put their profile onaupair-world.net just days before I re-activated my profile. We found eachother, talked on the phone then met in person, and I moved in in less than a month. Soon after moving in, we went through the guidelines for weekly hours, payment, etc, and we agreed to the terms that most of their previous au pairs went by.

Several months in, they are very happy with me. They tell me that I’m their best au pair they’ve hired, that I’ve caused the least amount of problems. I am their first American au pair as well. The girls love me and miss me when I’m not around, and I can tell that it is stressful for the parents to handle their own kids when I’m on vacation.

In addition to au pair duties, I also work during the day as an intern for the mom, who has a small business. I am paid the same hourly rate as my au pair job, which is $4.35 an hour. I am doing internet marketing, and although I realize that many internships are unpaid, the work I am doing is more than satisfactory, and I end up working almost 13 hour days with both jobs.

I work 45 hours a week, with 10 consecutive hours each Saturday. I am paid the minimum, $196 per week, for doing the maximum amount of work.  If I work less than 45 hours (sometimes, this is not of my choosing), $4.35 is taken off for each hour missed. What are the legalities of this? The government documentation is not easy to follow.

I am just wondering if I am being taken advantage of. I love the work, but my family and friends scoff at my hourly wage. For my experience and qualifications, should I be paid more? Do you have any advice on asking for a raise, specifically methods on how and when to ask?

Any help you could offer would be GREATLY appreciated. Like I said, I enjoy my job, but if the family is taking advantage of me, my trust in them will be broken, and I may have to find another job sooner than expected.

Sincerely, Emery

Oh my goodness, where to begin.

Your host family IS exploiting you.

They are messing things up by trying to categorize you in ways that fit their needs and not yours. You are not an au pair, you are not an intern. You are an experienced, live in nanny. You are a part-time office worker with a college degree.

You need to be paid (in my opinion) at *least $12-15 per hour of childcare, and $10/ hour off office-work up to 40 hours, then time & a half after that. As a full-time employee of theirs, they should pay taxes on your wages, and they should (ideally) provide you with some kind of basic health insurance. And, if they want to provide you with room and board, better you should establish a rate for this, and pay it back to them out of your wages. That’s more professional.

You aren’t an au pair. But, if you were an Au Pair…

If you were an actual Au Pair (within State Department rules) you’d be getting additional benefits, such as basic health insurance, paid vacation, an education stipend ($500), and monthly training&social meetings with other au pairs. And, as an au pair from outside the US, you’d be getting some kind of cultural life experience — which you’re not getting as a US citizen. So, if we were to consider you a kind of ‘au pair’, you are not being fully compensated.

Also, as an au pair your tasks can NOT include doing business work for the host parents.

Worse, as an “au pair” you cannot be ‘docked’ any hourly wages if the family doesn’t use your full 45 hours. You’d get your weekly stipend, regardless of the hours.

You are a Nanny

Guess what– as a US citizen, an adult,  a person with a BA, and a person with significant childcare experience, you should be treated as a Nanny.

You know how much a nanny gets paid in the NY/NJ/Boston area? Anywhere between $12 and $25 per hour (before room and board). Even if you were to take the total # of hours of childcare, multiply that by $15, and then subtract the US State Dept. estimate of room and board (which is around $140/week), you are still being underpaid.

You’re also not an “intern”

Technically, an intern can be engaged by a company without being paid if the position meets 6 criteria. The three critical ones for you are :

  • The training is for the benefit of the trainees;
  • The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;
  • The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded

Otherwise, the “intern” must be paid the hourly minimum wage of $7.25 / hour with an overtime rate (over 40 hrs) of $10.88.

You are a part-time office worker with a college degree.

I can see that the family might want to call you an intern, and deduct the Room&Board from your hourly rate, but really. They are using the term ‘intern’ to keep up a convenient fiction– that this isn’t a real job that they’d have to pay someone real wages for. If your host parent tired to hire someone to do the work you’re doing, she’d be hard pressed to find anyone with the skills you are using who’d accept less than $10 / hour in the Northeast City. Geeze, a high school babysitter on Friday nights gets $10/hour.

Moms, Dads and Au Pairs, what do you recommend that she do?

Ask to be paid as a Nanny and Office Worker? Find a new job? Wait it out until the end of her year? Your advice wanted, below….


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Taking a Computer Lunch January 19, 2012 at 7:13 pm

This is wrong on so many levels, but I think the first place in where the young woman went wrong is not negotiating a contract before she moved in with the family. She is a nanny, but she let her AP years get the better of her. Of course the family loves her – and it means they can afford to do a lot of other things while still having great childcare and cheap labor.

How many months is several? Because let’s assume the negotiations were good for one year. Let’s say it’s time to renegotiate the contract and see if both parties are interested in continuing this relationship. This woman should have been paying social security and taxes on her salary – after all while APs don’t pay into SSI, they do pay taxes, which means she’s making a pittance.

However, one can’t live forever as if one were still in grad school. Even if caring for kids is what you are meant to do, even if you were working in a preschool, you’d be getting more benefits. You need health insurance, you need SSI quarters, and you should be saving for your pension because you won’t be young forever.

So, it’s time to sit down with the family and discuss whether or not they are interested in renewing your contract for next year. Tell you that you love them, and you are interested in gouging them, but you’ve been doing math and you’re losing money on the deal. You love the work, but you need to set aside money for your future and you can’t do it. Tell them that you were still thinking like an au pair, but you realize that you’re not just having a one-year fling in the the US, you’re living the rest of your life.

And while they might not be able to stomach a jump from $4.35 an hour to $10 or $15, you should have no problems finding a family that will pay you the going rate for a nanny, if that’s what you want to do.

Read Craiglist – figure out what the going rate is in your community (send out feelers if you must). If you really love the family, you might not take a huge jump in salary next year, but work them toward it.

cv harquail January 20, 2012 at 9:29 am

“Tell them that you were still thinking like an au pair, but you realize that you’re not just having a one-year fling in the the US, you’re living the rest of your life.”

great point, needed to be highlighted!

Dorsi January 19, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Another point (touched on by TACL) — Au Pairs do not pay SSI/FICA/Medicare. The reason they don’t it because it is assumed they will never benefit from the system (they don’t qualify for Social Security). As an American, you probably hope to benefit from these programs some day, or at least have them as a safety net. It is wrong for you not to be paying into it, it is wrong for the family to not be matching your contributions, and it is exploitative. If you were to become disabled you need to have paid in for a certain period of time to collect benefits. There are other, more complicated, tax questions here, but this is enough to say that you are not being treated legally of fairly.

Also, compensation (again,as alluded to by TACL) comes in many forms. While I don’t feel like I exploit my au pair at all (who works under the same terms as you do, except for the docked pay and crappy internship), I feel she gets several kinds of compensation that she can’t get any other way (chance to learn English, travel, unique cultural experiences, etc.).

Taking a Computer Lunch January 19, 2012 at 11:05 pm

Well not quite – presumably you don’t dock your AP’s pay when she works less than 45 hours. Personally, my AP works between 30 and 35 hours most weeks (sick kids and school vacations excepting), but she still gets the stipend. You also pay for her to have a network of APs, and while some agencies and even LCCs within agencies do a better job than others, for most APs in the US it helps to create an initial social outlet as well as a safety one.

IMO, this mom took advantage of a young woman’s naivete. She knows what the going rate for her community is–and she’s still docking this nanny for $4.35 an hour!

AFHostMom January 19, 2012 at 9:21 pm

So many issues….I’ve got to pick my jaw up off the floor, but I’ll start with the au pair’s tax situation. Emery, are you paying taxes on your income? If not, let’s put aside the illegality of that and focus on what you’re missing out on. As has already been mentioned, there is SS/Medicare, but you are also missing out on the earned income credit to which you should be entitled as a single woman making around $10k (or more) per year. Is someone else claiming you? What is your health care arrangement?
Is the “internship” even in a field that interests you or relates to what you want to do with your life in the long term? If not, since you already have a bachelor’s degree, is there a reason you’d work in an internship and not seek FT employment doing something else?
And the mom is a business owner who’s gaming the tax system? I’m sorry, I better not say any more until we know if she and you are paying taxes.

Pokermom January 20, 2012 at 2:32 am

I get that I am somewhat new to this whole thing, but since we’ve been actively looking at all of these rules there are several things that stood out to me. I think both parties are in the wrong here. I didn’t think you could be an “au pair” in your home country, so accepting a position where you were getting paid that weekly amount (deducting from the stipend is wrong and not in the way it’s supposed to work) and then complaining about the 45 hours and the 10 hours on Saturday, which is well within their right, but then complaining about it seems a bit off to me. They sat down and agreed to the terms, so there has to be responsibility for not looking out to protect oneself.

The second thing I found odd was the whole internship thing. In the posts I’ve seen on here, and in the rules, you are not allowed to work a second job in the US as an au pair. Given the poster is an American, I guess technically she could work the second job… but then don’t complain about working a 13 hour day. Most people I know who work 2 jobs, work long days. Plus most interns I know do it for experience or very low pay, and this poster did not negotiate even minimum wage here. Again, there is some lack of taking responsibility here on the part of the poster and wanting to blame the other party. If she wanted to get a job during her off hours when the kids are at school, get something out of the house, so you get a change of scenery! It sounds like there may be some cabin fever/too much time with the same people going on.

Now, IMO, the other party is definitely exploiting this person. They seem like they are trying to cut corners everywhere (saving money on fees) and get cheap childcare, don’t care about providing the other critical pieces to the au pair program (education, cultural exchange etc) and still want to call her an au pair. Of course they’ve never had an American au pair… you can’t be that in the US as a citizen! My guess is they call her that incorrectly to make themselves and the OP feel better about the position. She is a nanny, plain and simple. The whole situation is illegal the way I read it.

I’d go back to the negotiating table, and if that doesn’t work, then start looking at Craigslist, care.com, find a nanny agency there in the northeast and sign up with them… I know the job market is lousy but with job experience as an au pair previously and a BA I would think finding something better paying would be a little easier than this! What an awful situation all the way around.

AnonHM Europe January 20, 2012 at 3:45 am

Tells me a lot about the value of a Bachelor’s degree if a graduate isn’t aware of legal settings, taxes, medicare… If this person is no Fake I doubt she will be able to negotiate with the family. How can anyone be so naiive?!?

Taking a Computer Lunch January 20, 2012 at 8:07 am

I can see easily how she could be so naive – she has taken as series of low-paying jobs (working in a library isn’t a high-paying job in the US – especially when cities are closing them), and has had experience as an AP.

I have had APs who wanted to pick up babysitting work when our neighbors asked, and I always agreed to look the other way as long as they agreed that my schedule (I schedule around the 20th for the following month) was paramount. I always advised them NOT to do the math based on their stipend – that the value added by room & board, access to a car, a cell phone, education fees, etc., was factored into their rate of pay. I told them what the going rate was for someone who had experience with special needs children (I had one neighbor, in particular, with several children, happy to pay only a couple of bucks an hour).

In the U.S., people with BA degrees are happy to have jobs right now. I know several who are taking low-paying jobs to work in their field, hoping that experience will pay off in the long run. (I suspect the same is true in Europe – after all we’ve seen a great run of candidates for APs here in the US). However, I agree, the OP walked into this. The difference between her an an AP on a J-1 visa is, of course, she is free to renegotiate with the family or look for a better deal.

sunnyvah January 20, 2012 at 10:34 am

Hi Emery,
I read your situation and everything that was said so far. YOu should definately listen to the good advice.
I just wanted to say that I totally understand how you got into this situation! After having so much childcare experience it seems to be logic to work in that business while your doing your studies. I do that too. And the time after you finished your degree is kind of scary (So far everything seemed to be clear, but now the future is kind of unknown). The easy way out seems to stay in your comfort zone and work in the childcare business. If you think thats your “calling”, great, but you should then start to be a NANNY and not an au pair.
I think the main difference is, that you acknowledge you´re doing a job. Of course you can love the family and especially the kids, but also keep in mind that they are getting something out of this. And you should too! During my au pair time I of course knew that the families needed childcare, but my main idea was the whole “cultural experience” thing. Very often I felt so grateful that they “took me in” (of course you should always be gratful for good things people do for you ;) ). But now that I´m doing babysitting as a job who helps me to get through uni (as I said, lots of experience- more than any other job i did- pays very well) I´m also seeing how important good childcare is (it was also for my HPs, but I didn´t realize it fully till now- no excuses for bad performance in a free market) . What I´m trying to say is: good performance should pay well. At some point AP times are over. In your own country you´ll hardly get a good bargain as an AU PAIR, because you´re not having a cultural experience that could reimburse you for minimum wage. And you need to think of the future (health care wise etc.).

Talk to the family as already mentioned and if they´re not willing to pay you better: get out of there. You are very qualified and every family is happy about a reliable, trustworthy and loving Nanny. Plus you´ve done some month of an internship as well!
Good luck

Family With a Nanny January 20, 2012 at 10:43 am

Our family has previously hosted au pairs and now has a live-in nanny. While I agree that the nanny in this situation is being treated unfairly, especially with pay being deducted, I’d also like to present another side that hasn’t really been mentioned.

Our nanny does not regularly earn $10-$12 per hour of childcare, which would be the going rate for an experienced nanny or babysitter in our area. However, in exchange for less pay for childcare, she has room and board, plus a car and auto insurance.

These are all expenses that as a 20-something, would add up quickly if she lived on her own. The cost of rent, car maintenance, insurance, utilities, food, etc…are all things she doesn’t have to worry about. We pay her a monthly salary (legally reported as wages, with deductions and so forth), and depending on whether the kids are in school full time during the school year, whether there are days off school, or in the summer, her pay averages out to between $6 and $13 actual cash. Recently, per agreement from both parties, we also paid her college tuition which we then deducted from her pay – so while that was being paid off, she probably was making about $4/hour for childcare.

I certainly think there can be mutually beneficial relationships that are not focused entirely on how much someone is actually paid, and I think the amount of pay isn’t necessarily the only relevant factor to be considered based on other offered benefits. Clearly, the nanny in this situation needs to sit down and talk with the family about what she needs in order to make this a relationship that will work with both sides. She describes this as a “wonderful family”, and that alone should be worth a lot. To me, that’s reason enough not to go in using words like “exploited” when she talks to the family, but rather to start with saying “I think you’re wonderful, but I need to earn more money”.

HRHM January 20, 2012 at 3:43 pm

I think it’s clear, that in order for this family and the nanny (she’s NOT an Au Pair)to be in good legal standing:
a) She needs to be paid at or above minimum wage
b) She needs to be paying taxes (federal and SSI/med) and so do they
c) She needs to be either salaried (ie no deduction for working less than the negotiated hours) or hourly (ie time-and-a-half for every hour over 40)

Once that’s being done, if they want to negotiate an agreeable rate for her room and board, then that’s fine. That’s not what this family is doing. They are hiring an American Nanny illegally and paying her substandard wages to work in their home. This doesn’t benefit the OP in any way. She is a college educated American working in a field where she is experienced. She was naive to take the job under the conditions listed, yes. But the HPs are taking advantage of her and she needs to put an end to it. If they want an AP, then they need to hire a foreign national on a J-1 visa (and pay the agancy fees like the rest of us! LOL)

Taking a Computer Lunch January 20, 2012 at 10:46 pm

Alas, if you provide room & board you may deduct it from minimum wage. The standard salary for APs is minimum wage minus room & board, which seems to be how the OP and her family established her $4.35 an hour. Extraordinnaire APs would make $5.55 an hour in a 45-hour week (although in my 11 years of hosting, I have only had 1 AP with a college certificate, several with ausbildung (no comparison in the US – equivalent would be an intensive 2-year college program), and two with some university courses under their belt – all had extensive child caring experience (and most have had direct special needs experience), but even the OP has had more caregiving combined with university than most of them.

OP – you’re not an AP anymore.

NoVA Host Mom January 22, 2012 at 4:54 pm

That was what kept bothering me about this, actually. If the OP is FROM the US and working IN the US, she is in fact a live-in nanny. NOT an AP.

So, the AP rules of the State Department don’t exist and she is someone who is working for less than minimum wage and will likely have issues with the IRS when she goes to file her taxes. The employers will have different issues when they try to deduct her wages without having done the things an employer must do (like tax withholdings).

I strongly suggest you take the legal and financial advice from the above posters and start looking for a proper job with a proper salary and benefits. It’s time to start thinking like an adult and an employee. You agreed to this nightmare and went in with eyes closed. Time to open them and do something about it.

HRHM January 23, 2012 at 10:02 am

NoVA, I doubt that she will be filing her income taxes and I doubt that the employers will be deducting her. The one “benefit” to this arrangement is no doubt the ability to ignore US tax law.

azmom January 24, 2012 at 6:11 pm

Oh my. First, the 4.35 is minimum wage calculated at minimum wage. Basically it is minimum wage – 40% = 4.35ish an hour for 45 hours. The 40% is for cost of food/board. The 195.75 is based on 45 hours a week… They should be giving you a W-2 and paying their portion of an employers taxes. You are considered, by the US government a household employee. http://www.irs.gov/publications/p926/ar02.html#en_US_2012_publink100086722

While they are saving the fee of an agency by not utilizing an oversees au pair, they are also not taking out taxes or assisting you in building up toward social security income either.

The biggest exploitiation part I see is with the extra work you do that is not a nanny/au pair job. You should be paid for that at least at minimum wage, if not more, since that is not part of an au pairs duties that give them the ability to pay you less than minimum wage out of pocket, since legally a domestic employee can have the cost of room/board taken from their calculated pay (but then they should also be paying taxes on that…)

The second biggest issue is that they subtract from your 196 when you may not work the full 45 hours. If you agreed to a weekly salary then that’s a salary not a per-hour rate and then you just indicate that 45 is the MAXIMUM hours per week to work…

The third issue is that as a nanny you should be getting overtime over 40 hours if they’re paying hourly.

The US government doesn’t require you to be paid overtime as a domestic employee, but it doesn’t mean it is okay for them to not pay you for the non-au pair work you do.

I think they know they’re exploiting you. If you have the stomach… look at this, you’re GROSSLY underpaid.


You’re not on exchange program where you are being treated like a family member and getting educational allowance, etc. You’re a professional adult who appears to be making a career and you’re not reeping any of the benefits.

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