When your Au Pair complains about working too many hours, but still less than 45… what can you do?

by cv harquail on August 4, 2008

A Host mom/reader, Acicala, wrote in a comment/question last week that hit me right in the pit of my stomach, because this particular problem has been the source of nearly all the “APA” (AuPairAnxiety) that I have experienced as a host mom. The problem, in a nutshell, is when your Au Pair begins to complain about her hours. Here’s how Acicala describes the problem:

Our au pair has a friend who works nowhere near the 45 hours – at most 25 hour per week. Our au pair works on average about 40 hours per week with no weekend hours required. She is making her “relative deprivation” known. We cannot work less and were very clear during the matching process regarding the schedule. We also have spent over a $1000 on camps to lighten her load for the past two weeks. She plays well with our children and we all like her, but there is nothing more we can do to change the hours short of hiring someone else which doesn’t seem reasonable given that 40 hours. Any suggestions on how to make her feel better about the situation?

If only we could just say: no whining cat No Whining.
But we can’t.

I have experienced this situation in one form or another in over half our au pair relationships. Either it’s been a concern about the overall number of hours, or about the number of Saturday / Friday nights our AP has had to work, or about whether or not she could have a regularly scheduled off duty time during the hours when I really needed her to work (like, when my husband and I were at work!). Our one and only ‘flameout’ Au Pair got pissy and quit because she thought that it was too much to ask her to work on a Saturday night– And she did this after we had sent her copies of actual schedules and explicit explanations that 2 Sat. nights a month would be expected of her!

Acicala did all the right things up front —

— She made it clear what average amount of hours would be expected of her au pair, and when the Au Pair could expect to work these hours.

— She kept these hours and their scheduling within the legal limits ( e.g., no more than 45 hours, no more than six days a week, no more than 10 hours per day, one day with no more than five hours).

— She gave some thought to how she might reasonably ease the au pair’s load.

These efforts address only part of the problem.

Alas, doing all these sensible, rational things, should have eliminated the problem before it began, but it hasn’t quite worked out. That’s because there are several pieces of the problem that a rational approach can’t completely handle. These pieces of the problem include:

— An AP can work ‘up to’ 45 hours a week. But, some families need (and ask for) less on-duty time each week.

— Some au pairs will complete all their on-duty hours Monday through Friday. Other au pairs will be needed on weekend days or weekend evenings. So, even between au pairs working the same number of hours, one Au Pair can have a schedule more favorable than another Au Pair .

— Au pairs often make friends with (and want to schedule their social activities with) other au pairs with different schedules. So, they become aware of all the times that they are working when their friends are not, regardless of whether their onduty schedule is legitimate and fair.

Of course, when they get here in reality sets in, and especially when they start to compare themselves to other Au Pairs, they’ll only really notice the Au Pairs who have schedules that are somehow lighter or “better” than the one that you have provided for them.

What can you do? Try one or more of these suggestions…

I’m not sure when it’s all said and done what really works best, but here are the ideas that I’ve come up with… Please, add your own suggestions to these — maybe together we can help figure it out!

1. Give “just the facts, ma’am”. Take a totally rational, completely objective approach.

— Remind your Au Pair that she signed up for a 40 to 45 hour week job.

— Show her that her overall compensation only makes sense for your family if she is employed full time. One way to emphasize that it’s a 40 to 45 hour week job is to show her that her pocket money and other non-cash compensation are based on a 45 hour a week schedule. (I’ve done this, and I’ll eventually explain how I did it, but it’s too long to post here.) Basically, you total up all that you’re giving her, divided by the number of hours she works, and compare that to the minimum wage and/or the hourly babysitting rate in your area.

Remember — don’t compare it to the salary of a professional nanny! If she works less than 45 hours, she would be earning a much higher hourly wage, and you could argue that at that point you would simply hire someone who would live out and who would be simpler to manage. (You might have to pretend this, but you can at least say that this was the alternative you considered).

— Keep an accurate and cumulative count of her work/off work schedule, so that she is aware of how much she’s been on duty, how much she’s been off-duty, how many Saturday nights she’s been on or off duty, how many vacation days, and so forth. It can be easy for Au Pairs to think in terms of week to week (e.g., Damn, I’m working Saturday night again!) and simultaneously to forget that they had two full weeks off while your kids were at Camp, and they still got paid. I know of host moms who have kept a running tally of hours actually worked versus hours that could have been worked, to show Au Pairs that when it’s all said and done, the Au Pair is still working less than she might actually have been asked to.

I recognize that these are “rational” argument, and these won’t address the emotional parts of the problem, so also consider….

2. Ask for some support from your community counselor.

The community counselor is there to enforce the procedures and rules, most often for the protection of the Au Pairs but also for the protection of the host family.

— Ask your community counselor to discuss this issue directly with your Au Pair, and/or to discuss it at cluster meeting, or in an e-mail. She should remind the au pairs that they have been hired for a 45 hour work week, and that this is the norm. She should remind them that they should feel lucky if they work less than a 45 hour week schedule, and that it is unreasonable to expect to work less or to be irked if you work a full week.

[(Keep in mind, though, that some Au Pair Agencies paint a pretty and unrealistic picture of what being an Au Pair is like… they de-emphasize the work and highlight the sight-seeing, setting every au pair and many families up for disappointment. Shame on them.)]

There was a time when I went to my local community counselor for help with this issue, and it didn’t help. The counselor responded that I needed to ‘realize’ that other host families asked for fewer hours and that other host families didn’t use Saturday nights, and that perhaps I should adjust my expectations accordingly. (Hello? If I wanted a part time childcare person, that’s what I’d have hired. !! ) Maybe you’ll get a better response. What I took from her advice was that I started to emphasize how the Au Pair had 2 Sat nights a month off, rather than 2 on.

3. Ask for support from other Host Moms

— Talk to other host moms about their schedules, and determine whether or not your Au Pair’s schedule is out of the norm.

You might find that other host moms are intentionally or unintentionally hiding from their Au Pairs the actual number of hours that they work. (I had the situation with a friend, who told me that she thought her au pair only worked 30 to 35 hours a week. Because she didn’t write it down explicitly on a calendar or schedule, she never kept track of the exact hours. However, when we together went over her Au Pair’s hours and counted up the total — it turned out that her Au Pair was regularly working over 40 hours a week! But, because the host mom and the Au Pair never saw this number in writing, they both assumed the number was less!)

– Talk to other host moms about their schedules, and talk with them about considering whether they should have their Au Pair’s on-duty for additional hours.

Sometimes, host moms think they’re doing themselves and their Au Pair a favor only counting as on-duty time hours worked directly with the children. However, some Au Pairs are on-duty for uncounted hours/unrecognized hours, when they’re doing laundry, watching TV while the children sleep, or eating dinner. Or, maybe the host mom could add a new job or two (grocery shopping? Washing off the high chair? to use up some time in a legitimate way.

— If there is a specific post mom/Au Pair that your Au Pair is comparing herself to, consider talking to that particular host mom about having her au pair be on-duty for more hours, even if she has to make some work up or force herself to take some time for herself.

4. Change the framing from ‘how bad she has it’ to ‘how good she has it”.

— Find a worse case situation, and offer that to your Au Pair as a comparison. One way to help your Au Pair feel better is to show her a another situation where an Au Pair is being taken advantage of. Look around your cluster– it would surprise me if there wasn’t an Au Pair who had a bad deal and/or whose host family was breaking the rules. Not to revel in her misfortune, but her situation could show your Au Pair that ‘it could be worse’.

— Talk about how many days/night she has off duty, how many evenings she has free to plan social events, etc. In Acicala’s case, she could emphasize that her Au Pair has two days a week free, nearly every week!

5. Be Firm.no whining lil miss

– Tell your Au Pair that this is a job, she signed up for it knowing the schedule, and she should just deal with it. This is usually my husband’s line of reasoning. Maybe you and your partner could play good cop/bad cop on this one.
— Get this fridge magnet:

6. Be Clear.

— Be clear that this is what you need, this is the job, and stop at that.

— Be clear with your Au Pair when you are being flexible, making a concession, or giving her something extra. Sometimes I think that Au Pairs keep a running tally in their minds of when they give in for something you need/want versus when you give in for something they need/want, and I often find that there is a loser. (I think this is generally human nature regardless of why or what we are tallying up.)

7. Whether this is your problem or not, consider how you can help other host moms who have this problem. For example, here’s how every host mom can help with this problem:

Every host family who has the hours available could schedule their Au Pair to work one Saturday night a month — even if they don’t “need” childcare for a specific event.

I know this seems ridiculous, but if there is anything I could ask host moms around the USA to do, it would be to schedule their Au Pair for at least one Saturday night at month it they have the hours available. Who among us host moms doesn’t need a Saturday night out every once in awhile? And, if you are one of the lucky host families that doesn’t need to use all 45 hours a week to cover when you and/or your partner are working, you should definitely take some of this time to have a night out, even if it just means going shopping for yourself Target.

8. Finally, Be confident.

— You are being reasonable. You are holding up your end of the contract. You are being fair. You are being kind. Your kids aren’t devils. Being an Au Pair can be a tough job, but at your house it’s a fair job and there’s time for fun too. You are a caring parent and Host Mom, and you deserve an Au Pair that does a good job without complaining about the basics.

— If you need someone to remind you of this, email me.

What else can Acicala do? What have you tried? What do you recommend! Tell all……

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Rocio August 4, 2008 at 7:15 pm

Hi, I’m an au pair, and I work like 9 1/2 hours a day from monday to friday. But I don’t know how to tell them about my hours, because I don’t like to bother with that kind of things. They are nice, but sometimes I need to go out the house because the children get me crazy, instead of that, I’m keeping all my crazy things inside me.
Acicala is a nice hostmom!

cvh August 5, 2008 at 4:40 pm

Here’s a comment from Marguerite... I moved it over here from the ‘Start Here’ page so that readers interested in the conversation about this particular issue can see what Marguerite as to say! Here it is:

Frankly, there are many people who use up all of their permitted hours during the week and those aupairs will always have weekends off. There is nothing that can be done about this.

Respectfully, I disagree with the idea of having an aupair work on a Saturday night whether you “really ” need it or not. Aupairs ( and their friends ) are very astute. Nothing causes more resentment than this approach. I had an aupair once who heard her host mother say to her husband ” we have to go out because Lucille only worked 20 hours this week “. Another host mother told me that once her aupair was in rematch , she felt she had to ” get her money’s worth “. Word of these situations got around and every arriving aupair was ” coached by the local aupairs to be on her guard.
You cannot change your life nor should you.

What I have observed is that some little things go a very long way. For instance , every aupair I know was in awe of the woman who gave her aupair a present on Mother’s Day.

cvh August 5, 2008 at 4:47 pm

Opps. I missed a piece of Marguerite’s comment. Here it is:

As a counselor , I have a couple of thoughts.

Before your aupair arrives, your counselor can give (the arriving aupair) the names and email addresses of other aupairs who have a similiar schedule. There are only a certain number of plots to the novel and there is not that great a variation in the lives most Americans live. Somebody out there has a similiar life. Your counselor knows who they are.

Once the aupair arrives, the counselor can put the aupair in touch with other aupairs whose lifestyle is somewhat like hers. Sometimes schedule is a greater bond than age or nationality.

I try to write to my aupairs before they arrive. Lately, a number of aupairs have told me that they have , thanks to the internet , already made contacts and feel socially secure. The advantage of adult input into the networking process is that the counselor thinks of issues just like this one. She is looking at the process from an adult point of view.

Very few host parents have teenage children. At some point in your lives, you will be confronted with the fact that your own children’s friends have vastly different family cultures in terms of assets and priorities. That’s life. Consider this practice.

Peg August 6, 2008 at 8:47 pm

I am unsure if this post will hit the right section – “working 45 hours/week” —

I use all of my hours during the week. As a matter of fact, there was a time when I had to pay a babysitter to work 8 additional hours as my commute made me away from the house for 53 hours…

I cannot and would not schedule my au pair on a Saturday night just to help the other families. Never mind the little fact that I’ve not been with my kids 45 hours that week…

I have run across this 45 hour problem multiple times – not only with my own au pair. BUT our au pairs, and some of their friends, have learned to see the difference. Some au pairs may work less hours, but many times have a different relationship with their HF. Our au pair is truly part of our family, in all respects, and they realize that. Other au pairs may work 20 hours, but through time our au pair sees their friend be excluded or perhaps not as valued — in the “small” ways.

We support our au pair and know that 45 hours is alot at that young age. The au pairs NEVER realize what 45 hours is when they are coming here. We even had an au pair who was older and had worked full time before – but NOT with children. That was still an adjustment.

I am constantly in touch with our au pairs, I’m quite involved in helping plan their days, asking how things were, bringing home flowers on particularly hard days (usually happens 2x/year), etc.

We have seen our au pairs feel overworked but then very quickly see them be quiet about it as they ask their friends things and in the end realize that they’d rather be with us given the “whole” situation.

Our au pairs have weekends off and nights off. On the rare times that we’ve needed a quick help (funeral or other unplanned event) our au pairs have jumped right in and never thought another thing about it.

Our au pairs also realize very quickly that they are a HUGE help to our family – by seeing how crazy busy we are when home, etc. – and feel a sense of value for themselves.

It is a fact that au pairs compare, never realize how much work it is, etc. — but host families are all different and au pairs will find out that while there are some good things – there are some bad things.

One of our au pairs had a friend who had a seemingly perfect hourly set up. But she found out her friend had no support from the HF to help find classes to take, to learn about bank accounts, take the car, learn what fun, cheap things there were to do, get little gifts from us. Then as the year went on – this 18 hour au pair had to wake at 5:00am to begin watching children – had to do extra cleaning, etc. — suddenly the 45 hours and feeling special — was better than the 18 hours and feeling like hired help.

If your au pair is really complaining or has a bad attitude — work with them yourself — as if they were your child — teach them about life – in that the grass always SEEMS to be greener – but that it’s many times – not.

cvh August 7, 2008 at 11:59 pm

Just 2 quick corrections:

The suggestion to have your au pair work on a Saturday night was NOT meant as an addition to a 45 hr week. I was intending that suggestions for host families who have hours left over. I DO NOT advocate anyone asking their au pair to work more than the rules allow.

The suggestion to schedule your au pair to work one Saturday night a month is intended for host moms who have many au pair hours available to them after regular needs are covered.

Here’s why: (1) It seems to be a common statement or complaint of moms (especially those who work in addition to parenting) that they do not get enough time for themselves…The idea here is to use your au pair’s additional hours to schedule some childcare time for when you are not working, so that you (the mom) can actually have some downtime. Often we use childcare only when we are working (for pay), and not when we moms need a break.
(2) Also, some moms prioritize their au pair’s social schedule rather than putting themselves first sometimes. You can still be a good mom if you use childcare to go get a pedicure, or to see Mamma Mia by yourself or with girlfriends on a Saturday night. Sure you want to be thoughtful of her social life, but what about yours?

I’ll try to get these ideas adjusted in the post.

Bob E August 9, 2008 at 1:55 am

I like suggestions #4 (emphasize the positive) and #5 (be firm).

MK September 5, 2008 at 12:42 pm

I am very happy to see this blog and the posts. It is a very relevant topic. I’ve heard of a counselor that told families that most au pairs work 25-30 hours per week. But when I asked around there are planty of host families that keep to a 40-45 hour schedule.

6 months in, I realized that I was always giving my au pair time off mid-week, but her chores were never completed and I felt I needed to be supported better. Now I schedule close to 45 hours, but that includes her time to complete her chores.

My ap’s best friend works only 20-25 per week…but it is a VERY different situation than ours–older kids. But I think au pairs need to understand that this is a 45 hour per week job and each family offers something different.

I also love the suggestion of locating au pairs with similar schedules.

Lisa September 9, 2008 at 5:11 am

My fifth au pair is leaving in a few weeks and I will not get another one because we now live in a four bedroom house (with two kids) and I want the extra room for my office.

Re: hours. I think au pairs come without any real sense of what 45 hours of childcare really is– and it is really tough work, and, as we know as mothers, mostly undervalued. That said, it is what they agreed to do and it is fair for you to ask the au pair to stick with it. If she is mature enough sit her down and talk about the dynamic of comparing her deal and how sometimes other au pairs have more hours, sometimes less, and also talk to her about asking herself NOT is she has x,y or z but if she is happy in her situation, overall. Does she like the kids, the way she is treated, her room, etc. Most of the au pairs we had were young and they were learning how not to get caught up in the competition– and it is really a life lesson.

Locating au pairs with similar schedules is good idea.

For the record, our two favorite au pairs worked the hardest– one had a 45 hour week and was with us when we first moved to town, my husband’s mother died and we redid our kitchen. The other one, who is with us now, worked with me when we were living apart as a family and then she moved with us. Maybe there is something in all of these challenges that helped us to bond. Both really loved the kids– and because of this, I was always giving in “small” ways because it felt natural to do so.

My current au pair wanted to go home before she moved with us, I used ff miles to give her a ticket. I pay for her gas– not nothing when you live in CA. She buys what she wants at the grocery store– she gets to go and pick it out.

But she works 2 Saturdays a month– no matter what. We have always used au pairs on the weekend- in fact, having weekend sitting is part of the reason to have an au pair. It helps me to remember that I am her boss, this is her job and this is what I need her to do, that part of the contract isn’t negotiable. Think of it as a life lesson– for you (being her boss) and for her (being an employee). This is not to say you never trade Saturday nights with her, it is just to say there is something to be learned by you acting as her boss and she as your employee.

Good luck, Lisa

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