A Case for Au Pair Programs

In the last two years, there has been a lot of talk about the au pair programs. I totally get it – there are families out there who have overworked their au pairs outside of the regulations and restrictions of the program, there are also some super shitty au pair host families who are unkind and demanding of their au pairs in ways that are not fair or just, nice. However, I for one, believe that outside those generally crappy situations – that the program overall has a great aim and spirit for both sides of the aisle. 

Let’s start with that the program is and what it is not. 

The program is not a bunch of highly trained, extremely experienced childcare professionals looking to further their budding youth-focused careers. That is just not the basis of the candidate pool. If you are looking for an experienced, thoroughly knowledgeable, professional caregiver – you are going to have to hire a true nanny (with a true nanny price tag) because most au pairs are not “nannies.” Some are young teachers, sure. Some have been babysitters, yup. Others have been youth coaches or have worked at daycare centers in High School. Great. But most? Just regular girls with sitting jobs under their belts (mostly within their own families). So many of the girls I interviewed had backgrounds in Business Management, Marketing, Tourism… our current Au Pair studied to be a lawyer and was working in Transportation Management when we matched with her. 

Hiring an au pair is more like hiring an intern than it is a seasoned worker with experience, training and a particular skills set. They can be great, but they are green!

Au Pair are not servants. They aren’t there to clean your toilets, or cook all your meals. They aren’t coming to live with you to sweep your floors and take out your garbage or wait on you and your child. They can provide quality child care for your kids, and generally, clean-up after your children (to some degree). 

They are not your employees. They don’t arrive at work, check their home life at the door, get the job done – and go home at night to sling back a bottle of wine and complain about their coworkers to their roommates. 

Sure, there is absolutely a serious job at hand. Yes, there are definite rules and expectations. However, the au pair program differs in its spirit. The au pair has a job, but her job is within the realm of her whole life experience here. She is part of your family, resides within your household and her relationship to you and your kids is the defining characteristic of her entire stint here. Unlike an employee that goes home at night to worry about themselves, it is the host families job to “worry about ” their au pair as if she was a niece visiting for the summer. She might be a young adult – and yes – treated as such – but she is still a part of the family.  

For the Au Pairs, their desire to be an au pair comes down to a few very specific things:

An Experience: To live in the United States is an experience in itself. They might even be lucky enough to end up in a place they love! So many au pairs live in or close to cities some people only dream about visiting – Chicago, New York, San Francisco, LA… They come here and make friends, experience all their host city has to offer, travel around the country all while “living for free*” with a host family, that hopefully is a great experience too! Oh what fun it is to be… 

An Opportunity to go to an American School: Getting a few credits to complete the educational requirement for the program is all well and good for some au pairs. Others want to take full advantage of getting to attend a class at a great college/university in the U.S.. Not only is it a great resume builder, a cool experience, but also can help them further their career at home. 

A Chance to Improve Their English: Most every au pair will note that they want to become an Au Pair to improve their English. Having great English can be incredibly valuable to them back home when it comes to job opportunities and compensation, nonetheless the other benefits like travel. 

It’s a Resume Builder. Traveling and living in the United States, living on their own, working as a childcare provider, taking classes at an American university, fluency in the English language… These are great things for their professional (and personal) resume that can positively affect their entire life. It’s like an life-internship.

An Au Pair isn’t equivalent to other domestic jobs – the comparison is quite difficult to make. An Au Pair is here for the all encompassing experience. They are trading 45-hours a week in childcare for much more – language improvement, cultural experience, formal and informal education, friendships, travel opportunities, etc. A host family isn’t hiring an experienced nanny with particular skills, knowledge and resume points, they are exchanging a place in their home, food, and a spot within their family, for help. That’s not the same as most any other kind of employee. 

When it comes to money – well – that all depends. 

The weekly stipend is $195.75, however, let’s assume most families round up to $200.00 a week.

Families are also required to pay $500 towards the au pairs education.

The au pairs are given health insurance while they are in the program (let’s assume it at just $250/month in replacement cost).

The family also provides all the au pairs food, pays the extra utility costs of the household with one more adult in it (heat, ac, gas, water, electricity, etc.), covers the extra product use of another adult in the house (paper towels, garbage bags, soaps, toilet paper, dish soap, etc.), most families provide a mobile phone, transportation costs (car, gas money, insurance, train passes, uber credits), and my guess is there are many families who spend an extra $2,000-3,000 a year on their au pair if they bring them on trips, offer them bonuses, give them gifts at holidays or birthdays, or treat them to special events, dinners, etc. throughout the year. I know we do.

Then, consider that the au pair is living at the host family’s home for some cost of what rent would be in that city (here, we could be renting our in-law suite out on airbnb or to a full-time tenant for about $1500-1800 a month).

In the end, I estimate that the au pair stipend is $10,400/year, food is ~$4,000/year, “rent” would be around $9,000/year in the city (or way more – New York, San Francisco, LA, Chicago!), utilities around $520/year, house products around $630/year, education at $500/year, transportation around $2,800/year, and a mobile phone cost of about $900/year (if you don’t have to buy it first for $1000!).

At the end of that you could be totally $34,000-35,000 a year – averaging $15/hour for an au pair. Of course, I am positive the goal of many families is to keep that cost as low as possible – but for many, that price is the end game reality. 

Although the Au Pair is only seeing cash payments of $200 a week, their compensation total is much higher when all is added up. By no means is that a great living wage – that is not my argument here at all! But being compensated $10-$15 per hour in total to live in a “cool” place to have a unique experience for a year, maybe two years, to build up your resume as unpaid interns do year-after-year, is not a bad exchange. Especially if you are matched with a great family and in a great city!