BOSTON — Lawmakers are trying to blunt the impact of a court ruling that requires families employing au pairs to pay minimum wage and years of back-pay.
In December, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that au pairs — generally young women who come to the United States to live with families and care for their children — are entitled to the rights of other domestic workers, which includes making the state’s $12.75 per-hour minimum wage.
The decision caused turmoil for families hosting au pairs who are trying to comply and pay substantially higher costs. Lawmakers responded to a barrage of complaints from host families with proposals seeking to blunt the impact of the requirements.
One proposal, filed by Rep. Michelle Ciccolo, D-Lexington, and 15 other lawmakers, would give host families up to six months to comply.
Another proposal, backed by two dozen lawmakers including House Minority Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading, and Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, would allow families to deduct up to 40% of weekly wages they paid au pairs to cover lodging, food and other necessities.
Advocates for domestic workers say they understand the families’ frustrations but lawmakers shouldn’t be trying to mitigate the impact of the court’s ruling.
“Au pairs have been waiting a long time and we don’t think that should be delayed any longer,” said Julia Beebe, lead organizer of the Matahari Women Workers’ Center in Boston, which advocates on behalf of women in low-wage jobs. “These companies have made a lot of money off these workers over the years.”
Audrey Richardson, an attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services, called the proposals an “end-run around the law” that would cut pay and protections for au pairs.
The appeals court’s ruling upheld a lower court decision tossing out a lawsuit by several host families and a Cambridge-based au pair agency against Attorney General Maura Healey. The lawsuit sought to prevent the attorney general’s office from applying the state’s 2014 Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to au pairs.
Other proposals on Beacon Hill seek to shift the added costs to agencies that operate the au pair programs.
Legislation filed by Rep. Michael Moran, D-Boston, would require agencies to cover the back wages required under the court ruling. The bill, which has the support of worker advocates, would only affect back pay for host families with au pair agreements in place before Dec. 6, when the court ruling went into effect.
Rep. Tram Nguyen, D-Andover, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said the agencies that employ au pairs should be responsible for covering back pay.
“It’s completely unacceptable that these agencies kept parents in the dark, and gave them false promises that the domestic workers law wouldn’t apply to au pairs,” she said. “This proposal would help relieve the short-term burden on families and give them an opportunity to come into compliance with the law.”
But Nguyen, a former legal aid attorney, said “there’s no excuse for these agencies to delay the payments to workers who’ve been entitled to this for all these years.”
Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, who has also signed onto Moran’s bill, said the intent is to give host families time to adjust to the changes while ensuring that workers get paid what they’re owed.
“There’s so much confusion surrounding that ruling, and the potential impact on host families is enormous,” she said.
A representative for the Alliance for International Exchange, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group that represents au pair agencies, wasn’t available for comment.
The State Department, which oversees au pair programs, says they are intended to be cultural exchanges allowing young people to pursue an education in the U.S. while living with an American family. In court filings, the government calls them “a valuable tool of U.S. foreign policy” and argues against restrictive state-level requirements.
The appeals court ruling follows a $65.5 million settlement in 2009 of a class-action lawsuit by former au pairs who claimed they are underpaid and overworked.
Prior to the ruling, au pairs typically earned a stipend of roughly $195 per week in addition to receiving food, room and board. In some households au pairs work 45 hour weeks, advocates say. Host families also pay up to $500 a year toward an au pair’s academic work.
Massachusetts is the fifth-most popular destination for au pairs in the U.S., with 1,530 new au pairs employed as of 2018, according to federal data.
The 2014 state law requires domestic workers to be paid minimum wage, with deductions for room and board, and overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours a week. It also requires host families to handle administrative tasks required of employers, such as requiring them to keep time cards for their workers.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.