An estimated 53 million people are employed as domestic workers around the world. At this moment, in Colorado, a class action lawsuit is unfolding, alleging that several sponsor organizations from the au pair program are failing to obey state minimum wage laws. The lawsuit purports that the program sets wages at a mere $4.35 per hour for a 45-hour work-week for domestic workers on the J-1 visa program, which is domestic worker abuse. The J-1 visa program offers cultural and educational exchange opportunities in the United States through a variety of programs overseen by the U.S. State Department.
However, the au pair program goes unregulated by the U.S. Department of Labor. The Department of State issues J-visas, but then does “little or nothing” to assist workers faced with employment issues. The U.S. Department of Labor’s failure to tackle this issue means that participants often become vulnerable to wage abuse. Their isolation in homes, lack of financial resources and their limited language skills compound the problem.
Johana Paola Beltran is one of the individuals involved in the Colorado class action. She joined the au pair program after graduating from high school in Columbia. Johana was initially excited about moving to the United States to become a live-in nanny for a family in the Denver suburbs. Unfortunately, the experience was not as she had expected. In addition to not being paid for the days she spent training in New York, Johana was not permitted to eat dinner with the family, and sometimes didn’t have enough food to eat herself. Similar to other domestic workers in the class action, she was only provided with room and board, and was paid exactly $195.75 per week— or $4.35 per hour. Now, Johana is just one of five au pairs alleging that InterExchange, a sponsor agency, failed to comply with minimum wage laws.
But domestic workers face another, growing problem—sexual harassment. In 2010, an au pair from Portland, Oregon sued a placement agency after her employer sexually assaulted her. The individual also claimed that the placement agency did nothing to help her situation and was even told that the family she was placed with had gone through an “extensive background check.” The father made several sexual advances, touched her inappropriately and told her to keep her bedroom door open at all times. The father continued molesting the au pair for months, ending when she finally brought the issue into the light.
The Colorado lawsuit offers hope for those currently in the dark. If you or someone you know is currently a domestic worker confronting wage or other abuse, reach out to an attorney to better understand your rights and help put an end these practices.