Don’t Kill the Au Pair Program

A family and their au pair around a Thanksgiving table | Alex Nowrasteh

President Joe Biden’s administration is currently considering new regulations that will deny middle-class and upper-middle-class Americans crucial child care services, specifically hampering their ability to welcome au pairs into their families. Biden has proposed further regulating the federal au pair program, which will disproportionately burden highly skilled working mothers, maybe even to the point of driving more of them out of the workforce.

For me, this issue is personal. Like millions of families in the summer of 2020, my family faced a childcare crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The daycare our two young boys attended, aged one and three at the time, closed its doors, and our temporary nanny found another job. Fortunately, my wife and I were both healthy and able to work from home. But caring for two young children while working proved challenging.

We tried to find a solution and re-enrolled our boys in daycare, but it closed down for days at a time due to COVID cases. As a result, my wife and I had to take turns working and taking care of the children. I’d work during the morning and early afternoon, she’d work in the late afternoon and night. It was unsustainable.

Desperate, we finally considered hiring an au pair, a step we had never seriously considered before. The idea of having a stranger live with us seemed off-putting. We were not used to having help at home. We associated such arrangements with the super-rich who could afford butlers, maids, and private jets. But the pandemic left us no choice and convinced us to take the plunge. 

We are so glad we did.

We contacted an au pair agency and began interviewing au pairs within days. Due to COVID-related border closures enacted by the Trump administration, new au pairs weren’t coming to the United States, but those already here could switch families. After multiple interviews and in-person meetings, we decided we wanted to hire Neevoliah, who was originally from South Africa and had been with another family in San Francisco. She joined our family in early fall 2020. 

I stayed home with the kids while my wife went to the airport to pick up Neevoliah. Out of nervousness, I paced back and forth before they got home. What if we didn’t get along? What if she was messy? What if she was terrible with children or, God forbid, irresponsible? What if the kids hated her or my wife and I couldn’t stand her? What if it was just too weird to have a stranger live in our home? I had visions of conflict: passive-aggressive fights over the washing machine, yelling about the dishes, and having to fire her. 

But none of those things happened. Neevoliah was nice, pleasant, and responsible. It took about 20 minutes for us to get used to her living in our house. She joined our family, shared meals with us every day, and hung out with us on the weekends. We baked together, went to the store as a family, and shared our cultures. During the day, she watched the kids and took them all over the neighborhood to play. My wife and I could work, and the kids were safe and entertained. 

My kids love her, called her “Nee,” and had both a friend in her and another adult figure to set an example, discipline them, and guide them.

Having an au pair was not like having an employee living in our house, it was like having a cousin or a niece living with us. Neither my wife nor I expected to feel that bond with our au pair and our kids found somebody else who loved and cared for them. 

Hiring an au pair was the second-best decision we’ve made regarding our children (the best was having them). But the Biden administration’s proposed regulatory changes could end this program for us and thousands of other middle-class families. According to a new rule just released, the administration is proposing that wages be broadly determined by state minimum wage laws and calibrated upward based on an arbitrary tier system instead of the federal minimum wage, reducing the number of work hours, creating more complicated reporting schemes for hours worked and other requirements, and increasing the amount families must spend on education for au pairs. In short, every rule the Biden administration proposes will make it more expensive for families to hire au pairs and result in many fewer of them coming to the United States.

These changes would make it financially difficult for us and impossible for thousands of other Americans to continue hosting au pairs. In Virginia, where my family and I live, this regulation would increase the weekly wage we pay by 78.5 percent. Instead of hiring an au pair for another year, we may have to stop using the program. The fallout from a recent court ruling in Massachusetts bears this out.

In December 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that Massachusetts’ high minimum wage applied to au pairs—a previously excluded category of workers. Beginning on January 1, 2020, the weekly wage for au pairs increased by 170 percent including a minor deduction for supplying free room and board. Predictably, the number of new au pairs moving to Massachusetts collapsed as middle-class families were priced out.

The number of new au pairs arriving in Massachusetts in 2022 was 68.1 percent below 2019—the year before the state’s minimum wage applied to au pairs. At the same time, the number of new au pairs arriving in states unaffected by the court’s ruling rose 4.4 percent. It was as if Massachusetts’ minimum wage created a permanent semi-closed border around Massachusetts that locked out au pairs.  

Now, the Biden administration is considering regulations that will do the same thing nationwide—denying middle-class American families, au pairs, and, particularly, my family the ability to utilize au pair services. If the U.S. sees any effect similar to what happened in Massachusetts, it could be catastrophic for working mothers—especially in blue states with higher minimum wages.  

The government started the au pair program to advance public diplomacy by increasing understanding and cultural exchange between Americans and foreigners. Indeed, one of the justifications for the new regulation is to maintain “position cultural immersion experiences.” But the downside of insisting on higher state and local minimum wages adjusted upward by a federal tier is that many fewer au pairs will be employed in the United States. That undermines the stated purpose of the program. 

When Neevoliah was still with us, we welcomed our third child to our family—a beautiful baby girl. Neevoliah loved our daughter immediately and their bond was tight—she took the best photos of her. Neevoliah had to leave a year after she joined our family. Since, we’ve had a few other au pairs and even managed to replicate that first experience again. We still talk with Nee even though she’s back in South Africa. Our kids FaceTime with her and, when they’re not talking with her, they talk about her like a member of the family because she is one. 

Regulating the au pair program out of existence would materially and financially harm families like mine. Our childcare situation would worsen, our youngest kids would have to go to daycare part of the day, and my wife (who works from home) would be burdened with even more responsibilities when I’m at the office. But the worst loss is the bond and emotional connection that we’d be prevented from forming with new au pairs—and the sadness that tens of thousands of other American families wouldn’t be able to discover it for themselves. 

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