Finding a host family in the United States as an aspiring au pair from abroad is a little like going on a dating app, Jennifer Oliveira da Silva will tell you. After signing up with a private agency that has local affiliates in your home country, you create an online profile to introduce yourself, list your qualities and past experience, and wait for the other party to get in touch. You may exchange a few emails or have a couple of phone calls to get a feel for one another and spot any potential red flags. Then, if there’s mutual interest in sealing the deal, you have a match.
But here’s one big difference: When you end up on a terrible date, you can presumably find your way out of it and never see that person again. As a foreign live-in child care worker whose presence in the country is conditioned upon participation in the exchange program, you’re not only stuck with the other person but you have to keep helping them and their kids for up to a year. And also they’re your boss.
That’s how da Silva, a 22-year-old au pair from Brazil, describes it: a horrific, never-ending date.
At first, da Silva had a good feeling about the host family from Virginia she was interviewing with. The mother had a cheerful personality and didn’t seem bothered by da Silva’s basic English skills, which she hoped to improve before returning to Brazil to pursue a career in her major, international trade. They assured her she would be allowed to use their car and have access to the condo’s gym and pool. But when da Silva arrived in the United States amid the coronavirus pandemic in late February, “the lies started,” she says.
The host family had failed to disclose that their three-year-old son had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and that he saw a therapist twice a week. “It was really hard,” she says. One minute he could be very loving and the next he would pull her hair and kick her in the leg. “I felt very frustrated because I didn’t know how to handle him.”
On top of that, da Silva’s boss also denied her food. The host mother—whom da Silva nicknamed Cruella—reprimanded her when she ate leftovers that were going bad in the fridge without asking for permission. Another time, the mother refused to buy meat for da Silva, saying it was too expensive and “that’s why you have your salary.”
“My dad always told me that if you work hard, you’ll be rewarded, but I’m here working hard and can’t even earn beef,” da Silva says.
Under the State Department–run program, au pairs are entitled to a $195.75 weekly stipend and a $500 education allowance to pursue academic coursework in return for 45 hours a week and a maximum of 10 hours a day of child care work. That rate, which comes out to $4.35 per hour, is based on the federal minimum wage minus a 40 percent deduction to cover room and board. Each year, about 20,000 au pairs, mostly young women between the ages of 18 and 26, take part in the program and come to the United States on a J-1 exchange visitor visa. Brazil sends over more au pairs than any country. (In 2020, the overall number of visiting au pairs dropped to a little over 7,000 as a result of travel and visa restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic.)
The State Department has 14 designated agencies, or sponsor companies, that place au pairs with US-based families. They advertise the program as a cultural exchange—as opposed to a domestic worker program—where participants can experience American life and “are considered a member of the family such as a big sister or brother.” But a 2018 report by a coalition of labor, migration, and civil rights organizations found that the “State Department’s continued mischaracterization of the program as a cultural exchange,” plus lax oversight allow, “abuses to persist.” (The authors recommended transferring the program to the Department of Labor to improve oversight, accountability, and enforcement.)
It was eye-opening when da Silva’s host family hired a nanny. The nanny was paid $29 per hour. “In four hours, she made almost half my weekly salary,” da Silva says. That’s at the high end of nanny rates, which in general fall somewhere in the $15–$20-an-hour range, depending on location. An hourly wage of $20 would shake out to an annual salary of nearly $41,600, whereas the au pair program costs roughly $20,000 a year.
Plus da Silva found herself performing tasks outside the scope of child care, even though doing so goes against the program rules. She would clean the house, the fridge, the garage, in part because the mess and filth bothered her personally. Da Silva says she also hoped to receive something in return, but the family showed little appreciation for her extra work. Recently, da Silva had to work all day cooking for 30 people during her mandated monthly weekend off because her boss decided to throw a Brazilian-inspired party. Da Silva spent $147 of her own money on preparations that she says she has yet to be compensated for.
“Normally, if you want a day off, you go home,” da Silva says. “Now imagine living with your bosses. Even if the family is great, you need a break.”
It doesn’t take more than a quick scan of popular Facebook groups with dozens of thousands of current and former Brazilian au pairs to find similar and worse anecdotes about host families, agencies, and the program itself. Emotional abuse, exploitation, threats of deportation—it’s all there. In a recent post in Portuguese, one au pair wrote: “anxiety and depression are part of the au pair package.” Another said she developed panic attacks during the exchange. Several said they started doing therapy because of it. On these Facebook groups, au pairs also share tips on how to boost their meager monthly income by as much as $1,000 from donating plasma.
Fernanda Coutinho, 26, joined the program in February through Au Pair Care, one of the biggest agencies in the business. When she had her initial match with a family in California, they said she wouldn’t have to work evenings or Saturdays. But once Coutinho arrived in the United States, the family gave her a different schedule, with days ending at 8 p.m. and including three Saturdays a month. Her boss also shared a set of house rules instructing Coutinho to “dress comfortably and conservative” and stating that “most communications will be through me instead of my husband.” (In Facebook messages, the host mother said it wasn’t “an easy decision to have a young lady living with us.”)
The family had also set up surveillance cameras around the house to monitor her. Soon, the boss was using the two-way audio system to give her orders. “I felt very uncomfortable,” Coutinho says. “She talked to me all the time, including when she wasn’t at home. That scared me.”
Coutinho, who has a law degree from Brazil, worked 50 hours a week for $240. She says the family routinely asked her to look after their two children and do other work on her days off so they could go get a massage or play tennis. “I was the housekeeper,” she says. During the pandemic, she could barely leave the house because the host father, a doctor, was strict about following COVID-19 precautions. When Coutinho wanted to get a state driver’s license to have more independence, her bosses opposed the idea. “They said there was no need,” she says. “The mother said if I wanted to get it, she wouldn’t help me because it was something that didn’t benefit them and that I would have to pay for the car insurance. They wanted to have control over me.”
In June, Coutinho quit. If an au pair chooses to leave their current placement, they have two weeks to find another host family to take them before their visas become invalid. Her local consultant, the agency’s mediator between the au pair and the family, told her she could stay in the home while she looked for a rematch. But for Coutinho the situation had become unsustainable. When she communicated her decision to the family, her boss lashed out. “She said I was selfish and heartless and said that was my last day,” she says. Coutinho barely left her room for the next couple of days. She packed her things, returned the phone they had provided, and bought a plane ticket to Texas to go be with her boyfriend. Later, the host mother posted about the “very bad ending to our relationship” on a Facebook group for families.
“It was frustrating to get here, a country that talks so much about tipping and valuing work, to do so much without getting properly paid,” she says. “We are just very cheap labor.”
In December 2019, a federal court ruled that au pairs in Massachusetts are covered by the state’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights regulating minimum wage ($13.50/hour in 2021) and overtime. The decision affirmed a lower court ruling dismissing a lawsuit brought by the agency Cultural Care to block the law from applying to au pairs.
For Ingrid Almeida Robison, who worked as an au pair in Massachusetts from October 2017 to November 2018, the change came too late. The first family who hosted her refused to pay the 75 cents she was owed under the stipulated federal weekly stipend. They also had a hard time respecting boundaries between work and personal time and used post-it notes to signal what food she could or couldn’t eat. When she changed families, she was so fearful of going through the fridge and pantry and cooking that she lost a lot of weight. Robison reached her breaking point with her third host family, who she says had had six different au pairs over the course of two years and had her constantly working overtime. When she texted them to say she was leaving, they threatened to report her to immigration authorities.
“I still do therapy today and many things come up,” she says. “I keep thinking about how I could have handled situations differently and left before they made me feel so bad.”
Da Silva recently asked for a rematch. She says the family yelled at her and called the agency, Au Pair in America, to try to get her kicked out of the program. She has since left the house to stay with a friend. Da Silva knows it’s a risky move and that she may end up with another “bad family.”
“I’m away from everyone and everything I love,” she says. “I have nowhere to go. If something happens, who can I run to? My bosses?”
This story is part of our Bad Bosses project, a reported collection of accounts from workers about their terrible bosses and the system that creates them. You can read more about the entire project and find every story here. Annotations—highlighted throughout—can be clicked for further context and comment from other parties. Got your own bad boss story? Send us an email.