A unique portion of U.S. immigration law allows young men and women from around the world (ages 18 to 26), who hold at least secondary school degrees, to come to the U.S. in order to live with a family, and provide childcare. It offers many advantages to both family and au pair: You pay a modest wage and receive up to 45 hours a week of child care, while the au pair receives your help learning English, receiving a bit of education, and having an American cultural experience.
The au pair can stay in the U.S. for up to twelve months on this visa, with a maximum of one twelve-month extension. However, most au pairs prefer to leave after one year or less.
The au pair program is administered through various private agencies as well as the U.S. State Department (DOS). An au pair receives a cultural exchange visa called a J-1. Like every visa, the J-1 has rules and time limits and can be taken away if either you or the au pair fails to meet these.
Fortunately, as the employing family, you don’t have learn much about the legal aspects of this process. An intermediary agency will take care of the visa, background checks, and associated administrative hassles (for a price). But you should start by looking into whether you are eligible and what basic responsibilities you will be taking on, as described in this article.
Who Is Eligible to Host an Au Pair
Not everyone will be able to make use of the au pair program. To serve as a host family, you and your spouse or partner must:
- live within an hour’s drive of an au pair program coordinator’s home (someone authorized to act on the sponsoring agency’s behalf in both routine and emergency matters relating to the au pair and who will visit or contact you regularly, especially in the first two months, to see how things are going)
- be interviewed by an agency representative
- pass a background investigation in which you provide employment and personal character references (for you and any adults living full time in your household)
- be financially capable of affording all your hosting obligations
- have status as U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents
- be fluent in English
- not expect the au pair to be in charge of any children under the age of three months (and if you will have children this young when the au pair arrives, be able to show that an adult will be on hand to care for them)
- not plan on the au pair caring for any special-needs child, unless the au pair has specifically relevant prior experience, skill, or training
- have enough space in your home to give the au pair a private bedroom, and
- cooperate with the sponsoring agency’s preparation of detailed materials to pass to the au pair, including a profile of your family and community and of the educational institutions where he or she will be able to take classes.
The Host Family’s Obligations to the Au Pair
Once the au pair is living in your home, you will be responsible for the following:
- Initial supervision. For the first three days of the au pair’s stay, a member of your family or a contact person must be present in the house.
- Pay. This is not open to negotiation. You must pay a preset amount; $195.75 per week as of early 2013.
- Limited work days and hours. The au pair is allowed to work only 45 hours per week and no more than ten hours per day or five and one-half days per week. (In other words, the au pair must have at least one and a half days off every week.) The schedule can be flexible, however; for example, the au pair could work morning some days and evenings on others, depending on your needs.
- Inclusion in family activities. You are expected to share meals, outings, holiday parties, and other family activities with your au pair. If you and your family go hiking, rollerblading, to the beach, or on any vacation travel, you must take the au pair with you (and pay travel expenses).
- Weekends off. Once a month, the au pair must be allowed a complete weekend with no responsibilities. Consider this essential for mental health reasons.
- Vacation. You must give your au pair two paid weeks of vacation time per year. (That means you pay the usual salary—but there’s no need to pay the actual vacation expenses in this case.)
- Arrange and pay for classes. The U.S. government expects you to not only foster the au pair’s experience and understanding of life in the United States, but to pay up to $500 per year for at least six semester hours of college-level coursework. And you must help with the sign-up process. Many au pairs attend English classes, especially if their required English proficiency turns out to have been exaggerated.
- Attend a conference. The au pair organization will sponsor regular family day conferences. You will need to attend at least one during the placement year. There are limits to your responsibilities, however. For one thing, unlike with your own children, you are not obligated to pay every expense the au pair incurs. Telephone calls, for example, are not your responsibility. Nor are gas and entertainment when the au pair is out, for example taking weekend trips or spending the evening with friends.
If all this looks do-able, your next step is to find an agency in your area and get the process started. For more information, see Nolo's book, "Nannies & Au Pairs: Hiring In-Home Child Care."