Au pair program changes could leave families priced out of child care

(NEW YORK) — Davis and Glen Griffin of Houston, Texas, say having a live-in au pair to care for their three children has been a lifesaver.

“We would not have survived the pandemic if it hadn’t been for our amazing au pair from Sweden,” Davis Griffin tells ABC News, “and now we are on our fifth au pair, who is from Germany.”

The Griffins both work full-time jobs outside of the home and hired their first au pair in 2016, when their children were 6, 4 and a year old. “We’re really excited to invite someone into our family that could help teach their language and culture to our kids. These women truly become part of our family,” Griffin said.

Launched by the U.S. State Department in 1986 as a cultural exchange visa program, au pairs have become an affordable child care option for tens of thousands of U.S. families.

To qualify for the program, foreigners ages 18-26 must meet U.S. federal requirements, including age and education. They agree to live with American families for up to two years, caring for children in exchange for room and board, transportation and educational expenses. As of 2023, the State Department said there were about 29,000 au pairs living in the U.S.

At an average cost of $25,000 a year, regardless of how many children a family has, au pairs can be more affordable than most full-time nannies or day care, according to CulturalCare.com. While au pair child care is an affordable option, families often pay up front for the service, which can include thousands of dollars to cover registration and visa fees, interviews, background checks and travel from the au pair’s home country to the United States. The fees are in addition to the stipend after the au pair is approved and arrives at the host residence.

After having their third child, Griffin said she and her husband ran the numbers and determined the au pair program offered them the best value for their money. “Overall, for the amount of flexibility and care, it’s less than having a nanny,” Griffin said.

Experts say the biggest misconception about the au pair program is that it is only for the ultra-rich. “It’s really not,” explained Alex Nowrasteh, vice president for economic and social policy studies at the Cato Institute. “A lot of middle-class families in the United States hire au pairs.”

But a Biden administration proposal meant to “update and modernize” the program, could price out up to 70% of families who hire au pairs, according to the Alliance for International Exchange.

“It could be devastating for the working families that currently rely on the au pair program for flexible child care, and it will force some of those families into the already overcrowded day care market,” said Nowrasteh.

Experts say the program attracts working families from various industries, but is particularly appealing to those that require a lot of flexibility in their schedule such as teachers, medical professionals and military families. “To have these families no longer be able to afford the program would be such a difficult situation, particularly at a time when we’re really facing an unprecedented child care crisis,” Natalie Jordan, senior vice president of Cultural Care Au Pair, the largest U.S. au pair agency, told ABC News.

The proposed federal changes would reduce an au pair’s workweek from 45 hours to 40 hours, unless parents pay time-and-a-half for the additional hours. Any schedule changes would have to be pre-approved by the au pair agency, and the current weekly stipend of $195.75 would be increased to match the minimum wage in the state where the host family lives.

Most private au pair agencies that run the cultural exchange program in tandem with the State Department acknowledge that some changes are necessary, like increasing the weekly stipend, which has remained the same since 2009. But the agencies argue that the proposed changes would alter the very nature of the program.

“You start taking this family home and turning it into a work site. You take this relationship between host parent and au pair and it turns into employer/employee; a checklist mentality,” Jordan said.

Massachusetts adopted similar rules in 2019 and saw a 68% drop in the number of au pairs in the state, according to the Cato Institute.

Christine and Ken Lim-Lee of New Jersey say if the proposed changes are implemented, they would be priced out of the program.

“Living in New Jersey with one of the highest minimum wages, that was kind of shocking,” Christine Lim-Lee told ABC News about how much her au pair’s weekly stipend might increase under the proposed changes.

The Lim-Lee’s currently pay their Peruvian au pair $205 per week to care for their 3-year-old son, Cooper, and 1-year-old daughter, Cora. Under the proposed changes, and with New Jersey’s current minimum wage of $15.13 an hour, that weekly stipend would nearly triple to $605.20 per week.

Former au pair Carolin Broecker of Germany praised some of the proposed changes, like higher pay, especially if an au pair is caring for multiple children.

Broecker says she had an “amazing” time living for one year with a family in upstate New York, where she cared for a young girl and said the relationships she made while being an au pair are priceless.

“I’m still in contact after like six months with my host family, and my host kid is like a little sister for me, and I’m a big sister for her. So having these experiences will just be with me for my lifetime,” Broecker said.

The State Department told ABC News in a statement that it is “deeply committed to the au pair program” and that the agency has an “ultimate goal of increasing protections for au pairs and ensuring affordability for American families.”

The State Department has also extended public comment on the proposed changes until January 28 and says it “will consider all comments before determining next steps.”

For the Griffins, they will have to find alternative child care if the changes go through. “It takes away a lot of the flexibility. It increases the price substantially, but I think it’d be a shame. I think having an au pair is such a special thing in my kids’ lives.”

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