Hi! Abbie and Maddie here. If you have been keeping up with the au pair news, then you already know about the Massachusetts ruling including au pairs in their domestic worker bill of rights. Are you worried about the changing domestic worker laws in your area and how they may affect the au pair program? We are! So, we decided it was time to take action.
In total, there are 9 states and two cities across the USA with a domestic worker bill of rights. The state of Washington currently has two open bills, SB6247 and HB2511, providing labor protections for domestic workers.
We started taking action by writing letters to the Washington state senators and representatives about the au pair program. Our au pairs wrote letters, too! On January 21st, we ventured to Olympia, Washington to speak with our state senators and representatives. We support the domestic worker’s rights bill, but we are concerned that it may have unintended consequences on the au pair program. And where the bills don’t explicitly include au pairs, they also don’t exclude them either.
Taking Action in Olympia
Monday morning we woke up super early and ventured out into the cold, winter rain. Olympia is about an hour and a half from the Seattle area on a good day, and we were fighting morning commute. Luckily Maggie’s husband also came along, which made us a carpool and able to go a little faster.
This was our first time ever at the capitol. We knew what to expect from reading the instructions and tips from the Seattle Host Family Facebook group and the Cultural Care emails. We also joined a group chat with other host families going to Olympia for the hearings.
Meeting people in real life after talking with them online is sometimes weird. It’s that feeling of seeing someone’s face that looks familiar but you’re not quite sure from where. After we registered to speak, we figured out we were all together and headed out to a cafe to chat before the first session.
Tip: If you are attending a government session in person coordinate with other host families and au pairs before hand. It really helps to have people posting times and places of where to meet, emails who to send your letter to, and give you friendly faces to look for in the crowd.
The session begins
When we returned from breakfast, we lined up outside of the designated room until they let us in. The room was completely packed, maybe 100 to 150 people, and many more in the overflow room. Over 50 people signed up to testify.
Immediately the committee moved our issue to the front of the line because of its popularity. The chair also specifically mentioned they received dozens of written statements from au pair families, au pairs, and agencies. It seemed to made an impact. Letters and emails work!
Because the bill was about passing rights for all domestic workers, about half of the testimony was really sad stories of abuse. This included stories of sexual harassment and assault, under paying and refusing to pay for work, threats to call immigration authorities, etc.
Others spoke out in support of the amazing jobs that domestic workers do and how important it is to pass this bill. Many domestic workers are women and people of color, groups that are easily exploited.
An AARP representative asked for further legal clarification and exemption for family members who get paid a small amount for taking care of elders. For example, a college student who goes over to grandma or grandpa’s house once a day to clean the house and administer medications or cook.
It’s pretty eye-opening to realize how many people will be affected by this bill!
Tip: If you are attending a government session in person arrive and check in early. They called us up to speak in the order that we checked in. They gave more time for the first speakers than they gave to the later speakers.
Finally our turn
When it came to the au pair issue we were very well represented. The VP of Cultural Care was the first to speak. We addressed issues of jurisdiction, protections, adequate compensation, mothers in the workplace, hosting an au pair being different than hiring nanny, affordable and alternative childcare, and more.
As host parents, we tried to divvy up the topics. Some host parents tackled the emotional side. They told stories about how au pairs are family, not just employees. They hang up Christmas stockings for former au pairs, and send presents overseas. Other parents told stories of bringing second or third languages and cultures into their homes.
Other host parents tacked the logical side. They explained the program protections and how the matching and rematch processes work. Abbie shared how her local coordinator came and inspected her house and sat down at the kitchen table to go over the contract step-by-step before they even matched with an au pair. Maddie shared about her rematch experience. She also talked about her current au pair who had left a host family that was asked to leave the program. Another host dad talked about how this bill could financially hurt au pairs because of increased taxes. Under the proposed law, taxes would be calculated including the money that goes towards room and board.
The MOST impactful testimony came from two current au pairs. Au pair testimony is FAR more impactful than host family testimony. One dad commented he could see a noticeable body language change in the senators and representatives when au pairs spoke. The au pairs shared that they came to the USA for a cultural experience, not to make a lot of money. They also talked about how their host families provide all the essentials. The stipend is enough for them to travel and have good experiences. Where they wouldn’t mind a little more money, they didn’t want the au pair program to become a transactional relationship. The room burst into applause and the chair had to settle us down.
Tip: If you are attending a government session with other host families it helps to coordinate your testimony. The law makers grew tired of hearing the same things over and over again. We also could have covered more points if we had decided who was going to address which topic before hand.
Au pairs vs domestic workers – our opinions
Although au pairs perform domestic work, they already have as many or more protections as domestic workers. We were there to ask that au pairs be exempted from these important bills.
As au pair host parents, we realized that it was our job to explain to our senators and representatives about the au pair program protections. Au pairs already have written contracts, federal wage protections, and resources such as the local area coordinator and a toll-free hotline. If au pairs go into rematch, the host families are contractually obligated to house and feed them until they depart. Au pairs also have the agency to help them find a new placement quickly. Live-in nannies and house keepers don’t have help or guarantees if something happens between them and the family.
Domestic workers, like house cleaners and local nannies, need at least minimum wage so they can pay for their own food and housing. Au pairs already have all food, housing, and at least a portion of their transportation costs covered. The au pair stipend is only a portion of the overall compensation package.
One of the parents among us works in finance. He calculated that paying an au pair minimum wage is actually harmful to the au pair’s bottom line. By raising their direct income, they pay a higher income tax which is calculated before living expenses are deducted. The current stipend system is the best tax deal for au pairs because they don’t pay taxes on living expenses. The tax on the stipend portion of their income is minimal.
Maddie did some calculations to confirm:
- Assuming $369 per week in room and board deductions (allowed under the Washington state bill)
- Assuming an average working week of 43 hours: 40 hours at the minimum wage of $13.50 per hour and 3 hours at $20.25 per hour
- Her au pair would earn $600.75 in wages, $231.75 after room and board deductions ($36 more per week than at the minimum stipend today)
- Her au pair would keep $163.32 after paying $68.43 in taxes. (Today she pays $19.83 per week in taxes at the minimum stipend)
Maddie will pay her au pair an average of $36 more per week, but she will actually make $12.60 less than today because of higher taxes!
Did our actions make change?
On February 6th, 2020 the Washington State Legislature voted to pass a substitute bill providing labor protections for domestic workers. This substitute bill does not explicitly include or exclude au pairs. However, it focuses on really important protections like retaining documents, discrimination, and retaliation. It does not include protections for minimum wage, over time, and requiring meal and rest breaks.
Our letters and testimony made a difference!
Are you ready to Take Action?
If you are ready to take action, start by joining other host families in Facebook groups:
- Au Pair Families of America – Host Family Sub-Group (This group was created by the Massachusetts host families to help other families from across the US)
- My Au Pair and Me Host Parent Community (this is our au pair host family group)
- Join a facebook group for au pair host families specific to your area
Next, write a letter and have your au pair write one, too. Write about your experiences in the au pair program and what it has meant for you and your family. Also, write about any changes you would like to the laws or proposed laws in your area or any changes you would like to see for the federal au pair program. Send your letters to your local and state lawmakers.
You can also advocate for the au pair program at the federal level. According to an email from Cultural Care, “the court ruling in Massachusetts invites the US State Department to take action in issuing a regulation that expressly preempts the program from state and municipal labor laws.” You can send your letters to the Office of Designation at the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at [email protected].