Should You Hire a Foreign Au Pair to Care for Your Children?

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; that was $195.75 per week in late 2016.
  • 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.

Finding an Au Pair Agency

Although you must start with the State Department’s list of Designated Sponsor Organizations, 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? A good agency can start matching you up with potential au pair within a day or two.
  • How much will this all cost? 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 costs that would be included in other agencies’ basic fees.
  • Is the pay structure for local coordinators based in part on bonuses? 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 must 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 identify a few candidates who meet your criteria, then present their information to you. 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.
  • 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.

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 fill out various forms to move the process forward.

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