Before hiring an au pair to care for your children, you’ll need to choose a qualified au pair sponsoring agency -- one that has received authorization from the U.S. State Department. This is an important decision, because the agency will take care of a lot of important tasks for you, such as:
- holding a personal interview with each applicant (and preparing a written report about it, which you can view)
- administering psychometric exams and creating personality profiles of applicants
- checking applicants’ school, job, and personal references
- checking that applicants have an international driver’s license
- requiring applicants to undergo a physical exam, and
- conducting criminal background checks.
In the course of this, the agency is expected to make sure that each applicant:
- has child care experience
- is physically capable of handling the tasks ahead
- has basic English-language skills, and
- in the case of some agencies, is a nonsmoker.
For applicants who make it through this screening and sign up for placement, the agency will provide some training in child safety and development. The agency will also help the au pair prepare for a U.S. stay, by arranging health, accident, and auto insurance, offering language courses, and remaining available in case difficulties arise while the au pair is here. It will even pay the au pair’s plane fare and other transportation to the host family’s house (using the fees paid by parents). Keep reading to learn more about choosing the right agency -- or if you're already at the stage of choosing an actual au pair, read "Choosing an Au Pair for In-Home Childcare."
How the Timing Works
You can start your au pair search at any time. It is not a seasonal thing, though some agencies schedule arrival dates on a rotating basis, such as once every month or two. Plan ahead, however. It can take weeks or months to get through the paperwork and interview process and find an au pair you like.
What to Ask or Find Out About Your Au Pair Agency
Your choice of an au pair agency is important. Although you must start with the State Department’s list of “Designated Sponsor Organizations,” and there are only 14 agencies on that list as of early 2013, they are not all the same.
Below are some things to research or ask about when choosing among agencies.
- How long will the process take? Make sure the agency’s scheduling fits your needs. A good agency can start matching you up with potential au pair within a day or two.
- How much will you need to pay in total? Find out how the fee structure works, both at the initial application phase and after your au pair arrives, for example if you are not happy with her or you lose your job and can no longer afford to pay. If one agency’s fees look significantly lower than the others’, do not assume it’s a bargain. The agency may later ask you to foot the bill for other costs that would simply be included in other agencies’ basic fees.
- Is the pay structure for local coordinators based in part on bonuses, and if so, for what? For example, some receive a bonus for every au pair who successfully stays with her host family. Although meant as positive reinforcement, this also means that your coordinator will have every interest in convincing you to keep an au pair who’s not a good match.
- What’s the ratio of host families to local coordinators? The more families your coordinator has to take care of, the less individual attention you will likely get.
- Can you talk directly to the local coordinator now? You’ll probably start the process with the agency’s national headquarters. But it would be nice to make sure you’re comfortable with the local coordinator early on, if possible, since you’ll be dealing with that person a lot later.
- What’s the procedure for matching families with potential au pairs? Some agencies pride themselves on providing one-on-one matching. In other words, instead of hitting you with a slew of applications, they carefully identify a few candidates who closely meet your criteria, then present their information to you. The agency allows you to interview and choose among the selected candidates without the pressure of other families having access to the same group. Conversely, some agencies simply make all of their candidates available to all prospective parents, for example on a website with photos and profiles.
- What benefits does the agency offer au pairs? For example, if it buys them health insurance, that’s one less thing you will have to worry about.
- What countries do most of the agency’s au pairs come from? No one agency has the resources to represent au pairs from the whole world. Typically, they draw from 40 to 60 countries. This is relevant if you are hoping for an au pair from a certain country (perhaps one who can cook the food of that country or teach your kids its language).
- How much child care experience does the agency require for au pairs caring for children over the age of two? State Department regulations require au pairs to have a minimum of 200 hours of infant experience before being placed with a family with kids under two. But there’s no minimum requirement for kids over age two. If you have older kids, look for an agency that has raised its standards above the State Department’s, for example by demanding that all its au pair candidates have 200 hours of child care experience.
After selecting an agency to work with, you will need to pay an application fee, send photos of everyone in your household, provide personal and employment references, and to fill out forms or write short descriptions of:
- your children’s needs
- your preferred form of recreation
- your religious practices
- the likely schedule you will ask your au pair to work, and
- how you plan to provide transportation while the au pair is staying with you.
The agency does, after all, need to make sure that you will be a suitable host family. And it is gathering information to give your prospective au pair, so that he or she can get a sense of who you are before agreeing to come live with you.
For more information, see Nolo’s book, Nannies & Au Pairs; Hiring In-Home Child Care.