30 December 2010

Au Pair Logistics/Details

A few people have asked me for an overview of how I decided to host an au pair and what the process was around actually finding Z and getting her here to the U.S. Without further ado, here's the scoop, keeping in mind that this is based on my experience and understanding and that I'm not any kind of official source for au pair information.

WHAT IS AN AU PAIR?
Definitions will vary, but the kind of au pair that Z is and the kind I was interested in hosting are young adults (18–26) who come here on official au pair status through a Department of State program. I think there are ways you can sponsor someone you know to come to the U.S. on an au pair visa, or ways to hire someone to do live-in childcare that is more ad-hoc, but I wanted to do a regulated, established program because it makes things a lot simpler to organize. The process and rules are clear and someone else is taking care of the paperwork.

The link above will give you a ton of information about the rules and regulations of the au pair program. The main points are the following:
  • You must provide the au pair with her own bedroom. It needn't be anything fancy, but it has to be her own, private room. You also provide her with food to eat. You also need to provide her with reliable, safe transportation, but this could be anything from a bike to a bus pass to use of your family car to her own car.
  • Au pairs are paid a weekly stipend set by the U.S. government. Currently that rate is $195.75/week.
  • Au pairs can work up to 45 hours/week (although no more than 10 hours in any 1 given day). You are required to give your au pair consecutive days off per week and one full weekend off per month. Au pairs also get two weeks' paid vacation per year. You negotiate mutually agreeable dates for that.
  • Au pairs will do any work around the house directly related to the kids: the kids' laundry, cleaning their room, preparing meals and cleaning up after, etc.
  • There is an educational component to the program. You are required to pay (up to $500) for your au pair to take a class of her choosing during her stay. You also need to help her find the class—it could be through a community college, a local university, or really anywhere.
For the record, I keep referring to the au pairs under the assumption that they are women, but there are some agencies who sponsor male au pairs as well.

PROS AND CONS
Maddie and Riley have been in a home daycare, an independent preschool, and had a live-out nanny, so I have experience with quite a few types of care. While I think all of those situations have their advantages and disadvantages, here are the advantages I see to having an au pair:
  • Flexibility with the hours. Forty-five hours/week is quite a lot of hours, and they can be totally flexible. Z works from 8 a.m. to noon every day, then again from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., so 6.5 hours/day. (M&R are in preschool during the afternoon break.) This means that if I want to go out in the evening, those hours are covered as long as I don't exceed my 10 hour/day limit. Also, when it's school break or a late start day or an inservice day, I'm not scrambling around to figure out childcare. Z is there!
  • Language and culture. M&R have been in some type of Spanish-speaking care since they started daycare at four months. Their public preschool program is Spanish immersion. I love that they are getting their language skills reinforced at home and that they are learning about another culture. Z cooks Bolivian food for the kids and tells them about her life back home. The kids love hearing these stories.
  • Help around the house. I think that Z is particularly helpful, so this may not be typical, and I have emphasized to her that she goes beyond the call of duty. That said, I'm not complaining that the house is always neat as a pin and I have pretty much not washed a dish since she came to live with us. I no longer think about what M&R will have for lunch; Z takes care of it. So, so helpful.
  • Logistics of someone working for you. The au pair program and agency take care of much of the logistical hassle of employing someone. The au pair agencies usually require the au pair to purchase health insurance through them, so there's one hassle taken care of. The tax implications are straightforward. The rate is set for you, so no worries about how much to pay, raises, etc.
I can only think of two possible disadvantages, and one is actually an advantage for me:
  • Someone else is living in your house. For me, this is an advantage, but for some families, this can seem like an intrusion. I'm extremely social, and I'm single, so having someone else around is actually really nice. For some families who like more privacy, I think it can feel overwhelming to have someone else around all the time. We welcome Z on all of our family activities if she wants to come, but that might not be OK with everyone. Something to consider.
  • You're dependent on one person. Just as when you have a nanny, if that one person is sick, it can be a problem.
THE COST
I mentioned above that you pay your au pair $195.75/week. What a steal for full-time care, right?! It is, but not quite as much of steal as you think. Unless you have the temerity to find and sponsor the au pair yourself, you're going to have to go through an agency, and the agency will have fees. I used Au Pair in America and I paid them around $7,000 in up-front fees to get Z here. I also paid for her airline ticket from New York (where she had her training) to Portland. I will need to pay $500 for her educational component. And I'm feeding her and buying her a bus pass and paying for her cell phone every month.

All that said, it's still cheaper for me to have Z with us than it was for me to pay for private preschool in the morning and an afternoon nanny. I'm saving about $5,000 this year for a situation that works *much* better for our family.

I think there's a misconception that live-in au pairs are only for very wealthy families. I'd venture to guess that any family paying for full-time childcare for *two or more kids* in a city of any size in the U.S. would break even or save money with this option.

CHOOSING AN AU PAIR
To choose your au pair, you have to first choose your agency. The two biggest agencies are Cultural Care Au Pair and Au Pair in America. I wanted one of the bigger agencies because they have larger applicant pools and more established support systems. That said, they can be more expensive and I'm sure the smaller agencies are fine. Our former live-out nanny originally came to the U.S. with Au Pair in America, and she said she enjoyed the program and had felt well supported, so that was a point in their favor for me, too.

Once you choose your agency, you fill out a family profile and send in some photos talk to a counselor (or this is what I did; I'm assuming it's much the same from agency to agency). Once your file is complete, you can either search the database of available au pairs yourself or have the agency screen applications for you based on criteria that you provide. The number of available au pairs is overwhelming, so I had the agency screen for me. You are able to see quite a lot of information about the au pairs: photos, their educational history, an essay in English about why they want to be an au pair, notes from interviewers about how the candidate presented herself and how her English is. I will say that au pair shopping felt strange to me in the way that online dating feels. There's something a bit dehumanizing about specifying criteria and then choosing people from a lineup. But you do have to make a real connection with the candidates as you must conduct a phone interview with anyone you are serious about inviting to the U.S. You can do this via Skype (if the au pair has access) or regular phone or whatever works for you.

I found the experience of making our match with Z somewhat like choosing a college. Once we found Z, it just felt like the right fit. I had three final candidates, and I'm sure they all would have been fine. But Z seemed like a part of our family from the first time we talked. That's not very scientific, but it seems to be working out quite well.

Once you make your match, the agency takes care of helping the au pair get her visa and arranging for her travel to the U.S. Then you just wait for her to arrive!

I'm happy to answer specific questions about the au pair gig. There are also lots of blogs out there written both by au pairs and by host families. I have certainly found it to be a great solution for us, but like anything, it's not for everyone.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

There is a warning that I'd like to caution to both you and your readers. My SIL went through one of those two agencies (I honestly don't know which). She paid her money and her au pair came to stay with them. They loved her and they thought she loved them. The au pair went on her two week vacation and never came back although she was supposed to be with them another 18 months. They called the agency which then said "sure, we'll send you another au pair for the next 18 months... it'll be another $7,000 plus airfare and educational fees". They were BADLY burned. They paid out nearly $10,000 plus the $200 a week and got only 6 months of care and a lot of heartache and upset. Not very reasonably priced to my way of thinking. I hope it works out better for you than it did them but a lot of these women are looking for an American to marry them and once they do, they disappear contract or no...

Snickollet said...

@Anon:

As I said in the post, pros/cons and risks/rewards inherent in any situation. I'm sorry about what happened to your SIL and hope she finds a situation that works out better for her.

Regarding the duration of the au pair's stay, the original contracts are all 12 months with the possibility to extend 6, 9, or 12 months if the au pair and the host family are interested.

-snick

Anonymous said...

Au Pairs are great when they work out well; just like day care, babysitters, or even a job for that matter. I know several people who have had great experiences. I know people who have loved one Au Pair and thought another was mediocre at best.

In our case, the Au Pair was not exactly what she seemed. She was a nice person (I think), but wanted a Mom, who was not at home (with me around some -post baby arrival- she did very little). For several reasons, I decided to part ways and she found a new job in another town.

I found out months later that she married within the year she left our job. I was surprised to say the least. During our conversarions before arrival,she made sure to tell me she did not have a lot of interest in going out and came off a bit shy and religous. She also insisted on Saturdays off for religious reasons and had to ask her pastor to "agree" that she could give some Saturday time. After she arrived, she started going to church intermittently and she missed it entirely after the 2nd week there (went out and stayed out with some new friends).

I was surely surprised to find out that she got married at 21. I guess she really did want to stay here and she was probably motivated to do that all along. All that said, each scenario is different. I am sure that there are a large percentage of Au Pairs that are here for the experience, sharing of cultures, and personal growth and development.

Z sounds like a terrific Au Pair and you deserve it!

Laurel said...

Thank you so much for the detail, Snick! (That was my most instant-gratification blog request ever: post a question and a couple hours later it's answered!)

I'm trying to do the mental math: for our two children I think an au pair would about break even. For us it might not be as good a solution because 1) we are more private and I'm not sure we'd deal well with sharing our home 24/7 and 2) I work from home right now, so even if there's a caregiver around during those times, it's really hard to freely go about my business. Still ... if we had a third, or if I were working full time ... it could be pretty tempting.

This also makes me think I should explore nannies more, as there are some more flexible arrangements available.

I would worry a bit about the person's dedication, just because of the young age (given how I was at that age, and my experience with some college-aged sitters). It seems so hit-or-miss, some people are great and some might not be. I guess that's what you pay an agency for, in large part.

Laurel said...

(I meant, break even with our currentvdaycare solution; which is about 35 hours per week.)

SarcastiCarrie said...

My sister has hosted au pairs (4 of them). Cultural Care has a summer au pair program (which is less expensive) so you can use that to test the waters and see how an au pair works for your family. It's a 12-week commitment and I don't think there is an educational component. I think they take the au pairs who are already in the US but whose host families don't need them for the summer and find them temporary families. You could always try that if you're interested and unsure.

When we needed childcare, my sister pushed the au pair aspect pretty hard, but we didn't go that route. We had several reasons:

We are more private people.

We live in the suburbs and would have no real way of transporting someone around.

Our youngest had a speech delay and a non-native english speaker was not going to work for us (even a South African or Australian probably would not have been a good fit given the situation).

And lastly, the 45 hour per week max just isn't enough if you're working full-time. I work my 9 hours/day plus commuting time. I would easily need 50+ hours of care/week when my husband can't get home before me. Or we'd have to have grandparents come and bail us out in the middle of the last day.

I met all of my sister's au pairs. Some were amazing and wonderful. Others were less so. One did not work out and they asked her to leave. The agency found her a new family and offered a replacement au pair (from their pool of people who just don't match the family). None of them got married or even dated seriously while here.

Faith said...

Snick,

I am so glad this is working out for you. I have been a quiet follower for quite awhile now, and it brings a warm smile to my heart seeing you "talk" like this. :) Nothing makes life greater than when we have harmony and peace at home with our children.

It sounds like you have found the perfect balance in your life that you have been needing for quite awhile. I'm proud of you for not settling and for pushing on until you found what you felt was best for you and your children. Bottom line...only you know what is best for your family.

I am a single mom myself and I hated leaving my son in daycare every day. Daycare is not the solution we need it to be. At the age of 16, I was handed the responsibility of being the evening staff person who was responsible for closing a daycare in the evenings. I worked every day after school and although I loved my job, I was in no way mature enough for the responsibility of the position I had.

Most (not all) daycare centers are staffed with either college students or high school students in the afternoon. People don't realize that these individuals barely make above minimum wage and most do not receive health benefits. Being responsible for the lives of many children requires better pay than what is received.

Our children deserve better than what the daycare system is giving them. If I had the means, I would have travelled down the au pair path as well. I would feel more comfortable with someone in my home watching my son, knowing he is receiving the one on one attention that he desrves.

Major kudos to you, Snick. :)

Anonymous said...

Great post. I would add that before you sign up with any au pair agency, you should contact the area coordinator for the agency. This person is the local contact with the agency, who meets with the au pairs monthly, checks to make sure everything is ok, and that they are taking classes, following rules, etc. I used both agencies Snickollet mentioned, and switched from one to the other simply because I couldn't stand the coordinator. Price is fairly comparable between the two, with some differences in how you select your au pair. I'm on my fifth au pair, and found that the key thing is to find an au pair who fully understands that the main purpose of the program is to work for 45 hours per week. Some of the au pairs do use the program solely as a means to get a visa to the U.S., but I've found that by explaining our schedule and what our expectations are, the party girls/husband-seekers aren't interested.

Anonymous said...

Did Z travel with you to Michigan or stay home in OR?

Meredith said...

Great summary of the program! We used them for three years, and couldn't have gotten by without them. Two are still close family friends, and now that one has had a baby, we feel like "grandparents".

One thing I'm not so sure about, though, is the possibility of arranging your own au pair. We had to go with an agency (and shovel out all that money) in order to get au pairs that we had already previously arranged ourselves though family connections. And in the first case, we lost the au pair we had been planning to have for quite a while: we realized we couldn't arrange it ourselves, and then we mentioned to the agency that she was my husband's cousin. No relatives allowed! Great. I'm pretty sure that the whole visa system is designed to completely protect the market for these two or three agencies.

Snickollet said...

@Anon:

Z did not travel with us to Michigan. We'd already made the arrangements for that trip before she came to live with us, plus it wasn't really a vacation, and I don't think she would have had a very good time. My parents had her over to their house for an American Thanksgiving so she didn't miss that experience.

@Meredith:

Good to know about arranging (or not) your own au pair. I'm glad the program has worked out as well for you as it is for us.

-snick

Sandi said...

I am also a single-widowed mom and could not do an au pair. I don't want someone living with us and I don't want to be responsible for someone so young living so far away from home. I have hired, live-out Nannies, mostly college students who are local and I've known fairly well. I am glad Z is working for you.

Anonymous said...

As a single mom by choice to twin girls (now 8 years old), I've always had live-in help. First nannies, and over the last 2.5 years, au pairs. I've now had 3 au pairs -- first was a nice girl who had an issue with serious depression (not fully disclosed, and it kicked in a few months after she arrived), so she had to go back home. Second au pair was the replacement, already in-country, wanting to extend a second year but her host family didn't want to. She was okay -- dependable enough, but a bit high maintenance. My third au pair has been the charm -- she is fabulous! Smart, fun, mature, completely reliable, someone whose judgment I trust 100%. I will say that I have gone with all European au pairs (first German, then Hungarian and now Italian), mainly because driving is something they have to do every day, so I wanted someone very comfortable behind the wheel. Second, I've always gone older -- each of my au pairs has been on the older end of the age range. I just wanted someone more mature and a little bit less likely to treat this experience as an opportunity to party it up.

Oh, and another agency to check out (my agency, that is) is AuPairCare. They all cost about the same and have roughly the same services they provide. For those trying to do the math, having an au pair winds up costing around $350 a week -- truly a bargain for 45 hours of flexible care. Yes, you lose a bit of privacy, but by and large my au pairs have been pretty self sufficient and have had lives of their own, friends, etc. It hasn't been like having an older child, more like having a younger sister.