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Leg. bill would effectively ax au pair program, says Seattle entrepreneur

For many families, the ability to hire an au pair is a lifesaver in a region with skyrocketing child care costs.

But Seattle real estate broker Kendra Todd says a bill in the Legislature right now would essentially cut the possibility of having an au pair for 1,200 families.

Senate Bill 6247, which passed the House of Representatives as House Bill 2511, sets regulations for domestic workers, such as housekeepers, home health care workers, and nannies — including au pairs.

Todd, who won the third season of “The Apprentice” in 2005, has used the au pair program with her husband, occasional KIRO Radio fill-in host Jason Mattera, to take care of their young twins. She finds the system not only to be a great way to get affordable child care, but also to offer a young person from the other side of the world a wonderful opportunity to learn about a new country and make memories.

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“Basically, they’re cultural exchange students,” Todd said.

Au pairs can come from 40 different countries through a U.S. State Department program. They stay for a year (with the option to extend their stay), taking care of a family’s children while living in the home. The host family pays for the au pair’s housing, meals, transportation (including car insurance), cell phone, often health care, and up to $500 toward any college classes they take here. The au pair also earns a weekly stipend of $200 — and with housing, transportation, and groceries covered, this wage becomes their spending money.

Far from just being a financial transaction, however, the experience allows an au pair to have an adventure abroad.

“They go back to their home country and they now know what it’s like to live in America, they bring American values back with them, they can share with their friends and family what the United States is really like,” Todd said. “And they come back with superb English skills, which help them with their future occupation in their home country.”

Unlike other kinds of workers in the house, Todd said the relationship between au pairs and host families is a very close one. The au pair celebrates holidays with the family and goes on vacation with them. Todd’s and Mattera’s au pair, Deborah, is treated like one of their own relatives.

“We love her — it’s a familial bond, it’s not an employer-employee bond,” Todd said. “Many Washington families are going to be deeply hurt by this legislation.”

The bill states that it protects domestic workers from unfair labor practices, but Todd pointed out that au pairs do not fall into the category of nannies or other in-home employees.

“They’re not here on a work visa, they are here on a very specific J-1 cultural exchange visa that makes them go home after two years maximum,” Todd said. “It’s just insane to try to lump them in with this bill and then force families to have to not only deal with all the federal regulations … but then have foisted upon us state and potentially local regulations.”

The state of Massachusetts passed similar legislation last year. Within the first three months, 50 percent of au pairs in that state dropped out, Todd said. With this change in law, many families had to make the decision between one parent giving up a career they loved to stay home with the kids.

“It would be such a shame to rob the families of the ability to have affordable child care, and rob these young people of the opportunity to have this rich cultural experience,” Todd said.

She recommends people contact the Democrats on the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee, in particular Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle), who is most active in including au pairs in the bill.

Todd, like many Americans, once mistakenly believed that au pairs were a luxury for the wealthy. Now that she has experienced having one in her home, she realized it’s the opposite — they are a way for working-class couples to be able to keep their careers and start a family.

“It’s legitimately a way for families to be able to afford child care. … A nanny isn’t for everyone, and not everyone can afford a nanny,” Todd said.

Listen to the Dori Monson Show weekday afternoons from 12-3 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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