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Host families fight back against au pair ruling

From left, Parker, Griffin, au pair Andrein Cervantes, Cate, and the children’s mother, Angela Spence, played in Newton.
From left, Parker, Griffin, au pair Andrein Cervantes, Cate, and the children’s mother, Angela Spence, played in Newton. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

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Families whose child care arrangements were upended by a December court ruling granting state labor protections to au pairs aren’t giving in to the new regulations without a fight.

They’ve formed a grass-roots organization of around 1,000 host families, gathered more than 5,400 signatures on an online petition, and bombarded state agencies with concerns. They even made T-shirts. And on Wednesday, they plan to storm the State House to lobby for legislation that would make the rules less onerous.

The turmoil started Dec. 2, when a federal court ruled that au pairs in Massachusetts were covered by the state’s 2015 Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights , which means they are entitled to earn state minimum wage and overtime, among other employment protections, raising host families’ costs by as much as $333 a week.

Host parents are up in arms about the sudden increase, saying that the changes will be the death of the au pair program not just in Massachusetts — where it is a relatively affordable option in a state with some of the highest child care costs in the country — but also in other states that adhere to the ruling. Many agree au pairs need more protections, and should be paid more, but argue that the burden falling on families is too great.

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“Are we going to eliminate a program that is helping so many people across the world, or can we be the first ones to fix it?” said Angela Spence, a Newton mother of three who organized the lobby day and is unsure what she’s going to do when her au pair’s one-year term ends this month. “It’s going to be a program only for the super-wealthy now.”

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Run by the State Department, the program is meant to be a cultural exchange, not a typical employee-employer relationship, parents note. A number of state labor laws may not apply to au pairs, who are here on temporary J-1 visas, they point out. It’s unclear if they can use benefits such as unemployment and paid family leave, for instance, which host families are now required to contribute to.

Confusion reigns, as families seek answers from au pair agencies and state offices and get few details about how to make it all work.

Massachusetts legislators have proposed two bills to help host families since the ruling came down. One would push back the implementation of the new regulations to July 1, giving agencies and families time to adjust. The other would increase families’ weekly room and board deduction to 40 percent of the increased au pair wages — mirroring the deduction rate allowed by the State Department — making the maximum deduction nearly triple the current amount and reducing the cost burden.

Host families now get a $77 weekly deduction for room and board, which they say is woefully inadequate, especially considering the other expenses they typically cover, such as cellphones and car insurance, as well as gym memberships, winter coats, and drivers’ license fees.

Before the ruling, 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). Now, families that need 45 hours of care are on the hook for $528.65 a week.

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After the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights went into effect, Cultural Care Au Pair in Cambridge filed suit to exempt those workers and state officials held off on regulations. Cultural Care Au Pair , a division of EF Education First and the largest such agency in the state, places the majority of the 1,500-plus au pairs in Massachusetts.

After losing its suit, Cultural Care is offering discounts and prorated refunds to families already enrolled in the program and has temporarily stopped admitting new host families as it awaits clarification from Attorney General Maura Healey on how to operate under state laws. Cultural Care vice president Natalie Jordan said the agency continues to pursue a reversal of the ruling.

The parents leading the pushback are determined to raise awareness of the au pair program, which is sometimes portrayed as privileged people taking advantage of cheap labor from other countries. They note that, along with all the extra perks provided by families, au pairs are already entitled to a raft of protections, including one and a half days off a week, one weekend off a month, and two weeks of paid vacation every year. And their duties are limited to child care-related tasks.

“The goal [of the lobby day] is to educate people about what the program is and how it works and stop looking at us like these mean parents who take advantage of au pairs,” said Kaitlyn Ouellette, a nurse practitioner and mother of three daughters under the age of 5 in Medford.

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“They’re not these indentured slaves who don’t have money to leave the house,” she said, noting that her au pair recently spent the weekend at a hotel in New Hampshire with two other au pairs. “They’re having a great time.”

One of the driving forces behind a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, the Matahari Women Workers’ Center in Boston, detailed abuses of au pairs in a 2018 report, including workers who said they were forced to work long hours without extra pay and were treated worse than the family pet.

In a letter urging state representatives not to support the bills, Matahari and other domestic worker advocates said they understood that host families are upset about the ruling, especially because of the lack of affordable child care. But, they wrote, “the fact that host families have gotten used to a child care bargain is not a reason to undermine the fundamental right to basic minimum wages or to support a program that has many flaws, has strayed far from its ‘cultural exchange’ origins, leaves young people from abroad vulnerable to abuse, and was never designed as a full-time child care solution.”

Monique Tu Nguyen, executive director of Matahari, said the intention is not to get rid of the au pair program but to revamp it. Matahari met with Cultural Care several times last year, she said, and made recommendations such as increasing the education stipend and decreasing work hours to make it more of a true cultural exchange. Matahari and Greater Boston Legal Services are also working on legislation to address families’ concerns about being sued for back wages.

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In order to afford the cost increase, some host parents are getting second jobs, while others are leaving the program and scrambling to find alternative arrangements. A few are even considering moving out of state to find more affordable options.

One Melrose woman found out about the ruling two weeks after her au pair arrived from Mexico to care for her two young daughters. She and her husband couldn’t afford the wage hike, so they sent their au pair home. After making about 50 phone calls, they found a spot in a home day care for the girls for $630 a week — “way out of our budget,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified. Cultural Care Au Pair will only refund half of the $3,200 they shelled out, she said, and has given them very little information: “We can’t get anyone on the phone.”


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