Business & Tech

Some au pairs, in US through this visa program, say they’re treated worse than a pet

Popescu Gelu Sorin/AdobeStock

In addition to child care, they were forced to cook, clean, and do laundry, the au pairs said. One had to sleep in the dog’s play area in the basement. Another had so little time to visit the bathroom that she developed a bladder infection.

Some say they were treated worse than the family pet — all for $4.35 an hour, or less.

A new national report details the mistreatment of nannies who come to work in the United States through the State Department’s J-1 visa program, portraying what is billed as a cultural exchange as a form of cheap labor for American families, some of whom exploit young workers — many of them women — who pay an estimated $500 to $2,500 each to participate in the program.

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And the State Department does not properly regulate the agencies that recruit au pairs and unfairly deducts room and board costs from their wages, according to the report by several human rights and labor groups, including the Matahari Women Workers’ Center in Boston.

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“The mischaracterization of au pairs as cultural exchange visitors rather than workers results in a vacuum of oversight that allows employers to overwork au pairs, underpay them on a regular basis, and deprive them of the benefits of the program and of their basic human rights,” the report’s authors state.

Abril Johnson-Nieves, a native of Mexico, came to Boston in 2014, caring for infant triplets and a toddler for $195.75 a week. She was also expected to walk the dog and do laundry and was never paid extra, no matter how much overtime she worked.

“I always was stressed because my host family told me I was supposed to be there 24/7,” she said on a press call about the report.

More than 20,000 J-1 au pairs came to work in the United States in 2017, according to the report. The child care workers have to be ages 18 to 26, be proficient in English, and take at least six post-secondary educational credits during their one-year stint. Regardless of how many children they have, host families pay au pairs $195.75 a week — the equivalent of the federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, for 45 hours of work, minus 40 percent to cover room and board, according to the report. This amounts to $4.35 an hour.

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Families also have to provide up to $500 for the required coursework.

In Massachusetts, domestic workers like Johnson-Nieves are technically protected by a 2014 law that requires employers to pay the state minimum wage and offer time off, reasonable breaks, and the ability to stay in touch with family and friends. They can also only deduct room and board in limited instances and amounts.

But the agencies that place J-1 au pairs with families are not in compliance with state law, according to the report. One agency, Cultural Care Au Pair in Cambridge, sued the state in 2016, saying its au pairs are more like exchange students than nannies and the agency should be exempt from the state law. The company lost the case but is appealing.

An ongoing class-action lawsuit in Colorado involving 91,000 current and former au pairs claims the program violates minimum wage and overtime laws, along with federal antitrust laws and state fraud protections.

The agencies that place au pairs are driven by profits, according to the study, and when conflicts arise they tend to side with host families, who pay hefty fees to participate in the program. Cultural Care Au Pair, for example, charges families $9,070, the report said. From 2006 to 2014, the State Department did not expel or sanction a single agency, according to the report, despite numerous complaints.

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The State Department did not directly address the charges in the report. “We’re constantly striving to improve the program and the experience for au pairs,” a spokesman said. “We work with sponsors, host families, and au pairs to get feedback on rules and strengthen existing rules.”

Because at-home child care is done out of the public eye, often by foreigners, these workers are vulnerable to wage theft, sexual harassment, and other mistreatment, according to the report.

Of the 16 au pairs interviewed in the study, who worked in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Boston, and New York, all said that child care, not cultural exchange, was the focus of the program. Some don’t speak up about abuses they encountered because they don’t want to be sent home, and they fear being terminated from the program, which could affect their eligibility for future US visas.

The report outlines several recommendations to improve the program, including transferring oversight to the US Department of Labor. In the meantime, the authors said, the State Department should step up its regulation and enforcement, pay au pairs the prevailing minimum wage for child care, eliminate au pair recruitment fees, and stop deducting room and board from their wages.

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