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With au pair visas frozen, working parents are scrambling for child care

It's not just for super rich people; working parents who rely on au pairs for affordable child care don't know what they will do.
/ Source: TODAY

The child care struggle just got harder for a lot of families.

Parents who use au pairs are uncertain about their future due to an order issued by the White House this week suspending some foreign worker visas through the end of 2020.

President Trump's June 22 proclamation suspends entry of non-U.S. citizens "who present a risk to the U.S. labor market following the coronavirus outbreak." Among these groups are those who hold a J-1 work visa, the document that allows au pairs to work for U.S. families.

Through the au pair program, young adults aged 18-26 live with a U.S. family for at least one year. The family provides room and board and a roughly $200 weekly stipend; the au pairs work up to 45 hours per week providing child care and also get college credit.

It's often a lower cost option for families with two working parents who may need childcare at irregular hours. According to the State Department, 20,000 au pairs joined American families in 2019. Parents who rely on au pairs say that losing their child care will put their own jobs at risk.

Dr. Sruthi Thomas and her family have already met Alex Fraser, an au pair from South Africa who was supposed to start working for their family this August. Because of the halt to the au pair program, Fraser can no longer secure a visa to work in the U.S. Sruthi Thomas

Sruthi Thomas and her husband both work as pediatric doctors in Houston, Texas, and were planning for an au pair from South Africa to move into their home in August to help care their two sons, ages 5 and 16 months, while they work unpredictable hours treating COVID-19 patients. Now, their au pair can't come to the U.S.

"When we did a side-by-side comparison of hosting an au pair versus hiring a full-time nanny, the decision was obvious," Thomas told TODAY Parents. "The cost of hosting an au pair is slightly cheaper and grants you tremendous flexibility. They can work early mornings, nights, weekends and holidays. They provide school coverage for things like snow days and can watch the kids if they are sick and cannot go to school. Finding a full-time nanny to work these hours is virtually impossible."

Angela Babb, a Las Vegas, Nevada mom, has a 2-year-old daughter with a weakened immune system, who can't go to day care. She relies on her au pair for child care so she can work.

Vanessa was born prematurely in 2008 and has chronic lung disease. The infant's medical team advised against sending her to a day care facility, but she and her husband couldn't find other options and they had to go back to work, so they tried day care.

After just nine days in day care, Vanessa was diagnosed with RSV and was hospitalized for three days. Babb began to research the au pair program.

Angela Babb's daughter, Vanessa, 2, is cared for by Giovana Garcia, an au pair from Brazil.Angela Babb

"We really liked that we could host someone from another country who would integrate into our family as a 'big sister' to Vanessa," said Babb, who has hosted Giovana Garcia, an au pair from Brazil, for the last year. "Giovana is patient and calm. This was something my NICU mama heart needed ... I needed someone to love her like we did."

Garcia, 23, who the Babbs call "GiGi," has been an au pair since 2018 and has worked for two families.

"I have had the opportunity to live in two very different places and take care of different children," said Garcia. "I've been able to travel the U.S. and see so many different things. I’ve been able to study English and improve so much. It's been wonderful ... I love the kids I've cared for and am so happy I've had this opportunity."

Because she holds a current visa, Garcia will not be affected by the recent changes to the program. But the au pair the Babbs planned to welcome in September when Garcia moves to her next assignment has been unable to get a visa, leaving the Babbs unsure what they'll do for child care this fall.

Bethany Beecher-Thomas and her husband have used au pair services for the last 12 years for their four children, who range in age from 10 to 15.

Bethany Beecher-Thomas and her family have hosted nine au pairs over the last 12 years.Bethany Beecher-Thomas

Beecher-Thomas, who works as a software engineer for the Department of Defense, says when her oldest son was 2 and she was pregnant with twins, she and her husband hired their first au pair.

Later, she learned one of her sons was chronically ill and the other had autism. The Annapolis, Maryland mom says having an au pair allowed her family to thrive; if they had to juggle traditional child care options, she knows life would be much harder.

"Both of our sons have been stable and happy for years," she said. "We know as parents that the boys would not have been as happy if we didn’t have the affordable option of an au pair."

Beecher-Thomas says there's a misconception that using an au pair service is only for the wealthy.

"The majority of host families are middle class families with more than two children where in-home care is more affordable than a day care. Military families with deployed spouses or families where both parents are doctors are attracted to the au pair program as well because of the need for flexible and reliable child care," said Beecher-Thomas. "It’s also extremely helpful for families such as ours where children with mild special needs thrive in the comfort of their own home and are extremely stressed and difficult in a group care setting."

Patricia Brunner is managing director of the International Au Pair Association and says young people across the world are disappointed by the cancellation of gap years they'd planned in the U.S. Brunner adds that American families will be hurt by the change.

"The suspension of visas for au pairs is devastating to the many working American families," Brunner said in an email. "Working families face a crisis in finding child care options under normal circumstances, and losing access to this unique opportunity during this particular time amid the COVID-19 pandemic presents an even bigger challenge."

Brunner says she hopes the White House will remove the au pair program from the executive order.

"This federal program represents an important need for working American families, including their ability to continue working and supporting the recovery of the American economy," she said.

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