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A court ruling boosts au pairs’ pay, but it puts families in a bind

Beth Savage (right) is wondering how she’ll afford her au pair, Maya Zabel from Germany, shown with Savage’s daughter, Hannah.
Beth Savage (right) is wondering how she’ll afford her au pair, Maya Zabel from Germany, shown with Savage’s daughter, Hannah.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Families who count on au pairs to care for their children are scrambling to find a way to pay them significantly more, or find alternative arrangements, in the wake of a federal court ruling that au pairs in Massachusetts are covered by state labor laws.

With stipends suddenly rising by as much as $333 a week, some families have decided to withdraw from the program, potentially leaving them with no one to watch their kids, while their au pairs face being sent back to their home countries. Other parents are considering adjusting their work schedules or cutting back activities to reduce their au pairs’ hours. At least a few are considering leaving the state altogether to find cheaper child care.

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In a place with some of the highest child care costs in the nation, the US State Department’s au pair program has been a relatively affordable option, especially for families with more than one child who have room for live-in help. Until now, families paid au pairs at least $195.75 a week for a maximum of 45 hours of work, along with up to $10,000 in fees to the agency, including $500 toward academic course work. They also provide room and board and living expenses such as cellphones and car insurance.

That meant that au pairs were being paid less than minimum wage — adding to concerns they were being exploited. To come into compliance with Massachusetts’ minimum wage — rising to $12.75 an hour Jan. 1 — families will now have to pay as much as $528.65 a week, which accounts for the five hours of overtime allowed and includes a $77 deduction for the room and board provided by families.

This would increase a family’s cost by about $17,000 a year — a change that caught many of them unaware, even though agencies have known about the court case for years. Parents are perturbed by a new requirement to use timesheets, and worried they might be on the hook for back wages. And they are devastated at the thought of cutting ties with young people who have become family.

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“This ruling has upended our lives,” said Travis Hull, a surgery resident at Massachusetts General Hospital who has three children, ages 9, 7, and 2. He and his wife, a nurse, were about to welcome another au pair into their Medford home, their third over the years. But instead they abruptly cut ties with the program and are desperately trying to find a last-minute nanny share or day-care spot or afterschool program — options they couldn’t make work before.

“We don’t know what we’re going to do,” Hull said. “If something isn’t changed, we will definitely leave Massachusetts at the end of my surgical training.”

The litigation was brought by Cultural Care Au Pair in Cambridge, a division of EF Education First and the largest such agency in the state, which places the majority of the 1,500-plus au pairs in Massachusetts. Cultural Care was seeking an exemption from the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights that went into effect in 2015 and shone a light on the fact that au pairs were making far less than the state minimum wage.

The agency maintains that au pairs shouldn’t be bound by domestic worker laws because they are part of a cultural exchange program. Au pairs, who must be between the ages of 18 and 26, are required to take college courses and often explore the country during vacations with their host families. They get one and a half days off a week, one weekend off a month, two weeks of paid vacation a year, and their duties are limited to child care-related tasks.

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But some au pairs say they have been exploited, according to a 2018 report by human rights and labor groups. Claudia Villamizar, an au pair in Massachusetts from 2007 to 2009, said employers in Newburyport forced her to work 65 hours a week without extra pay and isolated her from her family in Colombia.

“It was the nightmare of my life,” said Villamizar, now part of the Matahari Women Workers’ Center in Boston, a driving force behind domestic workers’ rights.

Zabel played with the Savage children at their home in Melrose. Beth Savage is looking for ways to reduce Zabel’s hours while keeping her.
Zabel played with the Savage children at their home in Melrose. Beth Savage is looking for ways to reduce Zabel’s hours while keeping her.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The Dec. 2 decision by the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which upheld a 2017 ruling, is binding in Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Puerto Rico — and should apply in other states with higher minimum wages, said Audrey Richardson, a lawyer at Greater Boston Legal Services, who submitted an amicus brief supporting protections for au pairs.

“No one who’s doing the critically important work of caring for young children and being on duty for up to 45 hours a week should be denied the basic protections provided by the Massachusetts minimum wage and overtime laws,” she said.

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Au pairs could sue families for back wages, according to Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, which held off on enforcing the law while the case was pending but could potentially pursue back wages from Cultural Care and other agencies.

“Cultural Care has failed to provide host families and au pairs with critical information about their rights and obligations,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “They should have prepared for this outcome, and they have an obligation to make things right now.”

Some local au pairs may already be entitled to money as part of a recent $65.5 million national settlement brought against 15 agencies, including Cultural Care Au Pair, in which au pairs claimed overtime and state minimum wage laws were ignored.

Cultural Care vice president Natalie Jordan said the agency has been communicating with families throughout the court process, and she is concerned the changes could disrupt the program’s purpose as a cultural exchange. A family now might think twice before inviting an au pair to the movies or out to eat, she said, in case it’s construed as work time.

Some au pairs are reportedly being asked to come up with money for food and car insurance in light of the new financial strain on their host families.

“There’s going to be a lot of fear and concern that enters into the picture and I think that fundamentally changes the relationship,” Jordan said.

The agency is considering appealing the ruling to the US Supreme Court but has already informed families that the higher pay is in effect. It’s trying to ease the burden by offering to pay part of remaining weekly stipends or refunding fees paid up front if families opt out.

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Meanwhile, the au pairs are caught in the middle. Some are scared about being let go and missing out on an opportunity to study in the United States. But they like the idea of getting more money.

“We are here because we are cheap and that’s it,” a Brazilian au pair wrote to her WhatsApp message group. “We are here to work, this is not study exchange and this is not only a ‘Cultural Experience Program,’ and I’m fine with that!!”

Beth Savage, mother of 6-year-old Hannah and 3-year-old Jack in Melrose, brought on Maya Zabel, a German au pair, shortly after her husband died. Now Savage, a marketing manager at a software company, is trying to figure out how she can reduce Zabel’s hours so she can afford her. Any extra time Zabel spends watching the kids may get eliminated: during Jack’s speech therapy or Savage’s nights out, or even her solo trips to the grocery store.

Letting her go is not an option, Savage said, and not just because she needs help.

“The kids love her,” she said. “They already lost their dad. I don’t want them to lose her, too.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.