By Joe Guzzardi
March 23, 2015
For years, Hollywood has produced romantic comedies featuring young, beautiful au pairs who come to the United States to care for wealthy parents’ children. The nannies seek an American adventure that will enrich them culturally, allow them to earn enough to sustain themselves and maybe send money home. After all, the au pairs have room and board covered in their agreements so they can work for little—or so the story line goes.
But a recently filed class action law suit revealed the seamier side of an au pair’s life. As reported in the Washington Post, unsuspecting Johana Paola Beltran, a Columbian who had just graduated from high school, signed up with an au pair sponsoring agency, InterExchange, for what she was told would be an incredible opportunity. Excited by the prospect of being assigned to a family of four who lived in a plush Denver suburb, and promised that she would have access to their gym, their car and the freedom to take English classes, Beltran obtained the required J-1 visa, and willingly paid the $2,500 registration fee out of pocket.
From the instant that Beltran handed over her money, her dream turned into a nightmare. Beltran alleges that she had to pay for her own training in New York, and that once she got to Denver, she was “treated like a maid,” forced to cook dinner every night, do laundry, clean, garden, and tend to the family’s eight chickens in exchange for pay that averaged $4.35 an hour.
Lawyers representing the au pairs state that the 15 U.S.-based agencies and the families who ultimately hire their clients look for the cheapest possible childcare. The agencies that act as intermediaries deny that they’re involved in illegal price collusion, and blame the State Department which oversees the au pair program. The State Department, the agencies insist, doesn’t require them to meet federal and state wage standards. In response, State counters that its provisions include that employers must obey all federal, state, and local laws.
Once again, the J-1 visa and its Summer Work Travel Program (SWTP) that enables young foreign nationals to come to the U.S. is caught in the crossfire. In 2011, a national scandal erupted when Hershey was discovered assigning its J-1 cultural exchange students to hard labor in their warehouses, and paid them a pittance. An additional bonus for SWTP employers: they’re not required to pay Social Security, Medicare, or unemployment insurance for J-1 visa holders.
The State Department is critical of its own program. Two years ago, the department’s inspector general said that the SWTP “masquerades” as encouraging cultural exchange activities. An earlier Government Accountability Office recommendation to turn SWTP over to the more appropriate Department of Labor went nowhere. Under the DOL’s jurisdiction, employers would have to prove that no American is available to do the job, an indefensible assertion in today’s economy where teen unemployment has average more than 15 percent for the last 12 months. Moreover, about 10 percent of recent college graduates between ages 21-24 are unemployed; 17 percent are underemployed.
Foreign au pairs have outlived their usefulness. Plenty of willing American teenagers would do these jobs, assuming conditions and pay are fair. Furthermore, the J-1 visa, which has no cap on the numbers issued, should be eliminated. Little evidence exists that SWTP provides uplifting cultural experiences, but ample evidence has been offered that proves unscrupulous employers take advantage of it, and that it displaces eager-to-work American teens.
Joe Guzzardi is a Californians for Population Stabilization Senior Writing Fellow. Contact him at [email protected]