Having an au pair living with the Gile family made a big difference when the coronavirus pandemic lockdown hit this spring.
While child care centers were closing all around them and around the country, and families were struggling to care for their children while working at home, “We didn’t skip a beat. It was no problem for me to shift to work from home,” said Dawn Gile, an Army wife and attorney working in private practice in the Washington, D.C., area.
But long before the pandemic hit, the family realized the benefits of the au pair program — which has been suspended because of President Donald Trump’s executive order of June 22.
The Gile family is among an estimated 2,000 hosting au pairs per year who are serving in the military, or have served. According to the Department of State, there were 21,551 new au pair exchange visitors in the U.S. in 2019.
Dawn Gile’s husband, Sgt. Maj. D.J. Gile, is an E9 with nearly 22 years of service, and his hours “are not bankers’ hours,” she said.
Both have unpredictable and often long hours. They have two girls, ages 9 and 4, with a baby due in August, so having an au pair was the perfect solution for them to provide flexibility, consistency, and to broaden their children’s cultural knowledge. “Their exposure to a foreign language has been important,” Gile said. They’ve hosted four au pairs; they become part of their family, and relationships continue often long after the au pair has left the U.S.
Scramble for child care
Everything changed when their au pair’s term ended at the end of April. The next au pair was supposed to arrive May 1, but that was delayed because of the travel restrictions required by the pandemic. Au pairs currently in the U.S. are able to stay through their terms. Terms are one year, but can be extended by up to an extra year.
And now, Trump’s executive order of June 22 suspending J-1 visas for au pairs to legally work in the United States, through the end of the year, has the Gile family and others scrambling for child care. “I don’t know what we’ll do after my maternity leave ends,” Gile said. Right now, they have a college student helping out, but that will change as classes start in the fall.
According to the executive order, the purpose in suspending some nonimmigrant visas through this and other programs was to alleviate a “significant threat to employment opportunities for Americans affected by the extraordinary economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.”
However, the State Department’s J-1 Exchange Visitor Program “is an important cultural exchange program, not a work program, and should not be included in any actions suspending employment-based immigration,” according to a statement from the Alliance for International Exchange. The Alliance is an association that represents organizations and companies in the educational and cultural exchange community in the United States
The National Military Family Association has heard from many military families about the June 22 au pair visa ban, said Nicole Russell, NMFA government relations deputy director.
“There’s a case to be made that this disproportionately affects military families,” said Navy wife Kelly Finn Störmer, who has had four au pairs over the years helping care for their three young boys, and was hoping to welcome the fifth au pair into their family this summer.
“This affects military readiness as a whole,” said Störmer. Spouse employment is a critical issue in the military community, and child care is an important part of that, said Störmer, whose husband retired May 31.
“Affordable child care is a challenge for all Americans. The au pair program is one part, as everyone tries to piece together plans” for child care, she said. Alternatives are even more essential as child care programs have been closed, and are reopening with fewer spaces for children because of social distancing — exacerbating the already-long waiting lists that exist at a number of military child care centers. And many school districts have yet to decide whether they will reopen buildings in the fall. Many military families were in the process of researching joining or rejoining the au pair program when the executive order took effect, said Störmer, who is chief operating officer of the National Association of Veteran-Serving Organizations.
She’s trying to raise awareness about the issue in hopes the administration will consider an exception to allow au pairs to get visas. Within 30 days of the June 22 order, and every 60 days afterward, the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Secretaries of State and Labor, will recommend any modifications to the order.
A helpful option
Au pairs are younger adults between the ages of 18 and 26 who come from a foreign country, typically for a year, with the ability to extend up to an additional year. These foreign citizens must be proficient in spoken English, are vetted by organizations that are authorized to do so by the State Department, and live with their host family. They must receive at least 32 hours of child care training before starting; and they provide up to 10 hours a day/45 hours a week of child care. The requirements are more stringent if they are taking care of an infant.
For some military families, this is a program that solves their problems in getting child care. The cost for an au pair is about $25,000 to $30,000 a year, but for families with more than one child, it may make economic sense, depending on age and location, especially if the family isn’t able to get into any of the military child development programs. While many of the families are officer families, there are also enlisted families who host au pairs. It depends on each family’s situation.
For example, Gile said the cost for the au pair averages out to about $1,500 to $2,000 a month, depending on several factors, regardless of the number of children. When their youngest daughter was an infant in civilian day care they paid about $1,800 a month about four years ago, in addition to child care costs for their older daughter. They did use the Army fee assistance program through Child Care Aware, but even so for the two girls they paid at least $2,000 a month.
Military families interviewed said having an au pair offers them a great deal of flexibility in child care, which is important because of the usual inflexibility of the military job. They use those 10 hours a day in various ways – perhaps early in the morning and then later in the afternoon when children come home from school, for example.
• These arrangements can be helpful for dual military couples, single parents, and other dual-career couples with demanding careers.
• They are helpful — sometimes essential — during deployments.
• Families often take their au pair with them when they make a PCS move, if the au pair agrees, providing an easier transition for the entire family.
• One wife of an enlisted military member in California said if her husband gets orders this year, she and their four children will likely stay behind. Her children are thriving, and her career is thriving. An au pair will be essential in helping her manage while her husband is away, she said.
• With the au pair program, families know their au pair is in the U.S. legally, and there’s also a level of background checks.
• Military families enjoy the aspect of broadening their children’s exposure to other cultures. “We’re raising our kids with two languages. My husband is a German speaker, and we specifically hire a German au pair to help support that part of their education,” Störmer said.
• “We also have the joy of welcoming a new family member every year. I have daughters who live in Germany whose families have become part of our family,” Störmer said.
“It’s also an amazing program of foreign relations. Every time an au pair comes here, we create an American ambassador that we send home to their country. They come to learn, understand and respect the freedom we have as a nation,” she said.
“They see the impact of service and sacrifice on our families, how demanding our lifestyle is, and what a critical role they play in the health and safety, growth and development of our children as we serve our country.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.