Federal judge rules au pair wage case should go ahead

DENVER – A case should go ahead against companies that provide au pairs to families across the country, a federal judge said in an opinion that noted evidence from the plaintiffs that the companies co-operated to keep wages low.

The defendants are all 15 of the companies authorized by the U.S. State Department to arrange for young foreigners to stay with Americans and look after their children. The companies were sued by a group of au pairs who say they were unlawfully denied the minimum wage, overtime and other compensation.

In an opinion issued Thursday, U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello agreed with an earlier magistrate’s ruling in Colorado that the companies, which had sought to have the au pairs’ claims summarily dismissed, had a case to answer.

Tom Areton, whose non-profit California-based Cultural Homestay International is among the defendants, said au pairs should not be seen as professionals protected by labour law. Many of the au pair websites, though, stress the visitors’ child care experience and refer to them as nannies.

“These are young girls who want to come, experience the culture, maybe improve their English,” he said in a telephone interview.

Arguello said the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes wage, overtime and other rules, did apply to the case. She also noted that the au pairs had gathered evidence showing several company officials had agreed among themselves to keep payments to each au pair at $195.75 a week, or less than $5 an hour.

The magistrate, Arguello said, “properly considered these allegations and took them to be true, and this court must do the same.”

Areton said $195.75 a week was sufficient, noting that au pairs also had their air fare to and from the United States paid and, because they were living with families, did not have room and board costs. He said companies like his could not survive if they were forced to pay the minimum wage, and that their collapse would hurt middle-class families seeking affordable childcare. California Gov. Jerry Brown is scheduled to sign a bill Monday raising the state’s $10 hourly minimum to $10.50 next year, $11 in 2018 and $15 by 2022.

Nina DiSalvo, a lawyer who is helping to represent the au pairs and who is executive director of Colorado-based non-profit Towards Justice, said that while Arguello’s ruling was preliminary, it was significant.

“‘I would hope that families who employ au pairs would hear and understand the ramifications,” she said in an interview.

DiSalvo began the case with an au pair who was working in Colorado. Others joined who worked in Utah and Pennsylvania. In all, five au pairs from Latin America and Africa are named as plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit. The companies are based in Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Texas and Utah as well as California.