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Au pair agency sues for Mass. workers law exemption

A Cambridge company that places au pairs from foreign countries with local families is suing to be exempted from a year-old Massachusetts law intended to crack down on abuse of domestic workers including nannies.

Cultural Care Au Pair said its au pairs come to Massachusetts under a cultural exchange program administered by the US State Department and the new rules would require host families to increase stipends paid to an au pair by $250 a week.

That would be “economically infeasible” for most host families, the lawsuit said.

Passed by the Legislature in 2015, the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights requires employers to pay no less than minimum wage and offer time off, reasonable rest periods, and the opportunity to stay in touch with family and friends. It came amid reports of mistreated domestic workers, including a 2014 case in Harvard, Mass. where a Bolivian nanny who cared for three children for 13 years was paid just pennies on the hour and was not allowed to leave the home.

Cultural Care sued Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey because she administers the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights and other state labor rules. In its lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Boston, Cultural Care said its au pairs, who enter the US through the federal J-1 visa program, are much more like exchange students than nannies, serving as their country’s “citizen ambassador in the United States.”


The company’s attorney, Joan A. Lukey, said the federal government created the program in 1986 “as a cultural exchange program, not a work program.”

“Au pairs, who travel to the United States on a J-1 visa or otherwise obtain J status, are foreign nationals who come to the United States for the purpose of residing with an American Host Family . . . participating directly in their home life, while providing limited childcare services,” the lawsuit said.


Healy’s office declined to comment.

Massachusetts is home to about 1,200 au pairs through the federal program, and there are more than 16,000 in the United States, according to the State Department’s J-1 Visa website. Under program rules, they are allowed to work up to 45 hours a week, or 10 hours a day, but are paid a flat stipend determined by the government.

The State Department formula is 45 hours a week multiplied by the federal minimum wage, minus 40 percent to cover room and board — about $195 a week. The lawsuit said if a host family in Massachusetts would be required to meet state labor requirements, it would have to pay its au pair $445 weekly.

Au pairs must also be enrolled in post-secondary course work.

Cultural Care Au Pair’s website touts that “an au pair offers unique advantages to more traditional childcare options including greater flexibility, one-on-one attention and coverage during illness, school vacations and snow days.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.