Being an Au Pair in the United States: The Agency You Choose Matters

One way to learn English is to live with an American family and take care of its children as an au pair. I teach a lot of young women who do this. The results are usually quite good, especially in terms of listening and speaking. Unfortunately, some au pairs get matched with families that speak no English at all. This might still work if the au pair can learn English outside of the family. She has to take one English class anyway, but she also needs to spend a lot of time with friends speaking English. Unfortunately, some families have the au pair work far more than five days or forty hours a week. When that happens, she will have a hard time making friends and learning English.

Every au pair that I have taught has stories to tell about the parents and kids, because living with a family and raising kids forces au pairs to come to terms with American culture on a very basic level, starting with manners and food. Most can get annoyed, but they like it here, and many extend their stay from one year to two. Unfortunately, however, there are also families that make their au pair work six or seven days a week, and I have even heard of one that wanted to require its au pair to go to church, as if there were no such thing as freedom of conscience in this country.

The au pair agency is supposed to help au pairs who have been badly matched, but from the stories I hear, the results vary greatly by agency. Every horror story told me has come from someone working for Cultural Care. It seems its counselors have no incentives to make sure that the young women visiting this country have good working conditions. Little wonder, then, that their web page advertises “A flexible, affordable program!” (One possible translation: We can get you someone to work for you for $100 per week and we will not interfere if you make her work six or seven days a week.) By contrast, Au Pair in America has two major links on their modest homepage, “Become a Host Family” and “Become an Au Pair.” This setup reflects the reality I have heard from au pairs who came through this agency. The counselors work for both the parents and the au pairs. If there is a problem, a solution is worked out with both sides in mind.

I would like to be more specific, but I cannot without violating the privacy of students I have had. I just want to get the word out about the consistently bad stories I have heard about Cultural Care. I also want potential au pairs to think about what questions to ask before they sign a contract. Don’t just ask what the host family will expect of you. Find out how the au pair agency operates in this country. What incentives do its counselors have for looking after your best interests and not just those of the host family? How are disputes resolved? These questions matter, because unforeseen problems can easily arise. What if you unexpectedly encounter a family that doesn’t think you should go out at night during your free time? What if a host father thinks nothing of walking into your room when you’re not there and inspecting the contents of your fridge? Or what if no one in the host family eats together or talks, instead turning only to the TV or computer? What if the family lied to you about the working hours? These and many other issues can come up, and you need to have a way to resolve them. Make sure your agency will be on your side.

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12 comments
  1. Lara P said:

    This doesn’t really match what I have seen. I”m a host family with Cultural Care Au Pair, and host families are required to be US citizens (required supposedly for all agencies) – but also be speaking English in the home. It was checked by my LCC. Honestly, I’ve had great luck with Cultural Care. The local coordinator balances the needs of the host family, as well as the needs of the au pair. Now, I know the local contact can vary widely, and I may just be lucky based on where I live (all the coordinators for CCAP I have met around here are great) – esp. since all the horror stories I hear through my APs are usually from other agencies (AuPairCare most often, but not always)…However, any of the issues you list above are enough to bring to the agency and should prompt a FAST response from the local coordinator. AP’s and Host Families alike should check out all agencies – and just to defend my agency a bit… they have the same info on their page for both au pairs and host families (all the major agencies do!)….

  2. Glad to hear of your positive experience. I would be interested to know what region you are talking about. I’m in Washington, DC, where it is not clear to the students I’ve had what recourse they have through the organization, if their coordinator is negligent. It’s worth pointing out too, that you are speaking from the point of view of a host parent. Admittedly, that’s an important half of the equation, but only half.

    Of course, not all the experiences are bad. It’s just that when I hear these stories, it has always turned out to be Cultural Care. That is quite different from saying that when it is Cultural Care, there is trouble (which I’m not), but it raises a red flag in my book.

    One last thing: Having a stated policy that comports with U.S. visa regulations is one thing. Enforcing it within one’s staff is another. Have you any idea what checks on and incentives for the coordinator there are to do right by both sides? This is still unclear to me.

  3. Regarding my last question, there is Cultural Care’s own advertisement on their web page looking for coordinators. The page shows how the coordinator will have competing priorities. It talks about being a diplomat and enforcing regulations, but it also makes the coordinator’s marketing goals quite clear. What I’d really like to see is how they are paid, what incentivization there is.

  4. Natalie said:

    My name is Natalie Jordan and I am the Senior Vice President at Cultural Care Au Pair. As a member of the au pair community and employee of Cultural Care for the past 10 years, I wanted to provide some additional perspective and response to your piece and the comments that followed. We know that improving English is an important element of the experience of an au pair and will create a tremendous number of new opportunities for them upon their return home. What better way to improve this skill and completely immerse themselves in the American culture than to participate in a program like this? Each year, thousands of au pairs and host families come together as a part of the au pair program and have the opportunity to make a lasting impact on each other. I am proud to be a part of this program and, more specifically, to be a part of an agency that has been in business for over 20 years and is the largest in the U.S. It is important to know that all designated au pair sponsors are regulated by the U.S. Department of State and there are a large number of rules and regulations by which all sponsors must abide in order to remain in good standing and to continue operation. Among those regulations is that the primary language spoken in the host family home must be English. In addition, au pairs are not permitted to work more than 45 hours/week and no more than 10 hours/day. If a student in your class has indicated that these or any other rules are being violated for them or any of their friends, please urge them to speak with their program sponsor immediately so that it can be properly addressed. It is simply unacceptable for an au pair to be in a situation where any of the regulations or program policies are being violated. The Local Childcare Coordinator (LCC) is an integral part of the au pair program experience and can be an invaluable resource in providing guidance, support, and information. The LCCs work closely with a Program Director and, together, they make sure that all program participants are supported and all regulations are adhered to. The LCCs are there as a means of support to the au pair and the host family. We send surveys throughout the year to our program participants in order to gather feedback overall as well as with specific regard to the support the LCC has provided to all parties. You reference the description of the LCC role on our website and I think it’s important to highlight that of the four areas of focus, the last one on the list is marketing and the first three are about customer service, support, and compliance. If you or anyone else has any questions regarding any aspect of the program or the LCC role, please feel free to contact me directly. In addition, should you have any au pairs that share any concerns regarding their personal experience, I would be more than happy to speak with them as well and properly investigate any allegations of compliance violations. Thank you – Natalie Jordan, SVP, Cultural Care. 617.619.1159 / Natalie.Jordan@culturalcare.com

  5. It’s not every day that a Senior VP responds. I’m glad you made your contact info. available. Maybe someone will find it useful, and I will certainly pass it on, should I hear of any further problems. Meanwhile, I wrote you directly today, but I think the following questions bear emphasizing here.

    One thing your lengthy comments don’t address is the incentives that your coordinators have and what checks there are on them. Also, how clear is it to host parents and au pairs what, if any, recourse they might have, if they feel their coordinator is unable to solve a problem? Is there anything regular set up and well publicized? Or can they only contact you? Finally, what does “properly investigate any allegations of compliance violations” mean? Would a report have negative repercussions for the au pair who made it?

  6. tracy cota said:

    I am a Cultural Care Host Family. I am also a Local Childcare Coordinator for Cultural Care. I became a host family first because we needed childcare and liked the idea of having someone who would become part of our family. I became a coordinator after being on the program, having a great experience on the program and wanting to get involved. We have had an au pair from Romania, and our current au pair from Mexico is extending with us for another year.

    From the standpoint of being a host family, I think au pairs have an opportunity to learn much more than the basics of American culture — manners and food. Our au pairs have traveled with us, gone to pumpkin patches, old fashioned Christmas tree lightings, attended my kids’ birthday parties, one even came to my grandfather’s funeral on her own accord. We took the Romanian au pair to Mexico, and the Mexican au pair to see the snow and to the Bahamas. Their families have both visited, and become part of our family, which has been a great side benefit. They both came here to experience an American family and to see the world, and I think we have given them that. They, in turn, have given my kids great care and love, and have been very reliable childcare providers. At the heart of it, the au pair program is a cultural exchange program. When both the au pair and host family honor this component, I think it can be an amazing experience for everyone.

    From the standpoint of being a coordinator, all families who are accepted on to the program have to be U.S. citizens or greencard holders. My experience has been that every host family I come into contact with speaks English fluently. I do have families where one person may have come from another country originally, and they want the au pair to expose their children to their native language. In these cases, I always encourage them to be sure to provide outlets for the au pair to speak English. For example, speak only in the native language to the kids, and speak only English to the adults. And to be sure their au pair enrolls in an ESL class, if they want more English exposure. This has worked very well for them.

    In my role as a coordinator, it is my job to support both the au pairs and the host families. We screen all host families before they come onboard the program, just as we screen all the au pairs. I conduct a detailed orientation with the host family before the au pair arrives, and also do one after the au pair is in the home so that we can go over the number of hours an au pair is allowed to work, time off, house rules, expectations and all the other things that need to be communicated so that both parties have the same set of expectations. When disputes arise, we have a mediation process that we use, which is designed to help the family and au pair work through their issues. If things can’t be worked out, an au pair has a right to go into transition — change families — just as a host family request a new au pair if there are issues that they don’t feel can be solved. It is a safety net that is in place for both the au pair and host family, and we always work out a solution with both sides in mind.

    The information you have here about the au pair program has only one side of the story, and there are usually three sides to every story. Cultural Care has been bringing au pairs to the U.S. for more than 20 years now. And there are a lot of host families AND au pairs who have had great experiences with the au pair program, including me.

  7. Your positive experiences with au pairs reflects the best of those I have heard about.

    Your self-understanding of your role reflects Cultural Care’s stated policy, though I note that you recognize the fact that English is not always being spoken at home. Being sensitive to this fact and trying to compensate for it is crucial. The English classes aren’t enough, however, especially when only $500 is available for them.

    Finally, I note that my questions about incentives and checks on the coordinator herself go unanswered. How do you balance the competing pressures of your marketing and coordinating duties?

  8. Natalie said:

    Every host family and au pair is given an online account where they can find a variety of important and useful information including the contact name and number for their Local Childcare Coordinator and their manager, the Program Director as well as their Placement Manager. The online account also includes a fantastic program called InfoSource which basically provides an internal search engine for anything and everything related to the au pair program. We also have an entire team of Account Services Representatives available via our 800 # which is also listed on their contacts page and on all of our distributed materials. In addition, each host family and au pair is given a handbook at the beginning of their program term which is specifically designed for each of them which contains information on their resources and our process for addressing any concerns which may arise. The LCC incentive program includes a number of elements, but to address your specific question they receive compensation for new families that they bring on to the program, repeat families that remain with the program, and a servicing pay for the support they provide to all participants in their region throughout the year. In addition, they receive evaluations from their manager annually, they also receive evaluations bi-annually through our large-scale customer satisfaction survey, they also receive feedback on the end of year evaluations from their au pairs and host families, and we are routinely monitoring their compliance paperwork submissions and providing feedback and direction in this regard throughout the year. If there was a complaint regarding a compliance violation, the Program Director would investigate by speaking with all parties, clarifying the regulations, and making a determination regarding what the next action would need to be. This could vary from a mediation meeting with the LCC to a decision to remove a family, for example, from the program depending on the circumstances of that situation. A report by either a family or au pair would not have any negative repercussions. However, action will be taken to address the situation immediately as non-compliance is simply not an option on our program. This may cause some concern for an au pair who may be nervous about bringing this information forth, however, we will work with him/her and be sensitive to these concerns in how we approach the host family. It is important to note, however, that if an au pair ever feels that they are in an unsafe environment, and that includes an environment of intimidation following a concern brought to light, we will remove that au pair and make sure that he/she feels comfortable. I, again, offer myself as an additional resource while remaining confident that my colleagues in the Program Director role as well as their managers, the Directors of Customer Service, as well their managers and our Vice Presidents of Customer Service are available and eager to assist anyone needing their support. Staff members can be reached at 800.333.6056 from 9am – 5:30 pm in all time zones and on-call staff are available after hours for any emergencies.

  9. Thank you for your candor. If I understand you correctly, a potential for a conflict of interest in the coordinators still exists, but you believe there are structures in place to overcome any abuses. It sounds like your organization is doing due diligence. Question is, is that enough?

    It seems to me that these structures depend on the au pair being very proactive, and having a fair amount of linguistic and cultural competence. Many I have met would meet these criteria, but others don’t yet possess the necessary skills, although, fortunately, they are at least in contact with others from their own country.

  10. adriana said:

    I see we have a lot of sides in this story, and Stoneman did a good job in pointing some problems au pairs face in the USA. As an ex Cultural Care Au Pair, I cannot help intervening in the debate and adding another side to the whole story.
    I have to say my experience in the USA was a very nice one. It helped me a lot, I grew a lot as a person, I learned many things, my host family was a really good one and I think of them every day. However, I would be lying if I said I was completely happy about the program. With this I don’t mean to blame anybody, but I strongly believe things can be improved.
    First of all, my worst disappointment was with the car. My host family told me I would probably drive, and then, when I got in the US, they did not let me drive at all. Having lived both in Brazil and Italy without a car, at first I did not mind. One thing they did not tell me, though, is how important it is to have a car in the United States. Depending on where you live, public transportation barely exists. I know most families do provide a car to their APs, but the point I am trying to make is that Cultural Care people here in Brazil should have made me aware of the importance of a car. If I knew beforehand, I would probably have thought twice.
    Another thing nobody tells you before you arrive in the USA is that a 500 dollars scholarship for one year of English classes is almost nothing in Washington DC. That is also not very fair. Coming from Brazil, I really thought US$ 500 was a whole lot of money! And this is not only because I wanted to believe that: it is because Cultural Care people here in Brazil stressed this US$500 scholarship as if it was a very good deal.
    The performance of my LCC was also a little disappointing. All the au pairs in my group felt she was not really there for us when we needed her. Personally, since I never had very big problems with my host family, I never needed her help, but I would have used some interesting information about cultural programs in DC, movie festivals, the day embassies are open to the public, cherry blossom, etc. In fact, you cannot assume host families will be interested in informing their au pairs about any cultural events. I was lucky I became friends with my host parents, but I could see most of the times host parents just want you to take care of their kids while they are away, and that is pretty much it (it is sad to say, but that can be true).
    In fact, based on my experience as well as on my friends’, this thing of “cultural exchange” is definitely overrated by the program. Truth is most host families do not want to know anything about your country, they just want you to do the work they pay you to do (I remember that was the argument my host mom used all the time: it is part of your job to carry a cell phone with you, it is part of your job to clean the kitchen, etc etc). And, believe me, it is very frustrating to feel you are just an employee after all this “you will be a member of the family” propaganda. It is not the case of my host family, but if I think of it, in spite of our sort of open relationship, they didn’t ask me more than 5 questions about Brazil throughout the whole year I was there!
    Finally, in defense of the program, I do understand it is hard to evaluate all the families and all the au pairs. On the one hand, I could see families who behaved very badly with the au pairs asking them to work very very long hours (after all, APs do not go to the USA looking for a full time job – specially if you consider the salary – but for a full time experience); on the other hand, I have seen APs who did not take the job very seriously (and considering the responsibilities of being a child care taker, it is understandable that families have concerns). Good and bad experiences are just part of this program – as of life in general, I guess. Still, if the program could do a better job sharing information both with host families (who should understand they are not just hiring a cheap childcare service) and with au pairs (who should know more about the program and life they are embarking into), I think some disappontment and frustration could be avoided.

  11. Hi Adriana! It is interesting to hear you reflect on your experiences after you’ve had a chance to digest them.

  12. I’ve decided to close comments, since this thread is several months old, and now it is just attracting comments from people in the au pair business. Some are well intentioned, but I don’t want this blog to devolve into a bulletin board for business links, which is really what those comments were about.

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