In March, weekends for Leslie Guzman meant road trips, hiking, jetting off to Las Vegas or walking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. As an au pair in Richmond, she’d spend weekdays dropping her host family’s kids off at school and awaiting their return at 3 p.m., where they’d adventure to museums, parks and restaurants.
Then the pandemic hit, and Guzman was left to do her best in a world where the options, the activities, disappeared. If this were a normal year, she’d be headed home to a job opportunity and would help plan her sister’s wedding in Monterrey, Mexico. The coronavirus changed that, too.
Now, au pairs — child care providers from overseas who live with their host families — are experiencing a scaled-back America no one could’ve predicted, with more time being spent with their host families than the cities and American culture around them.
The days of work and free time blend together, and the previous breaks au pairs had when the children were at school are replaced with constant activities to keep kids occupied as most museums and pools remain closed.
They’ve become teachers, housekeepers, child care workers, play dates — the engine that keeps the house running as schools closed and life halted.
And as some private schools in Richmond consider reopening five days a week, Guzman’s role has grown to helping keep the children, some as young as second-graders, safe. But Guzman, 25, welcomes the change and distraction. Without it, she said, she’s not sure how she would manage the weight of isolation and loneliness in quarantine.
“I’m feeling good, even though we’re in difficult times and in a pandemic. I feel at home. It might not be the same, but I feel like part of the family,” Guzman said. “And that gets me through.”
She knows her host family, complete with four children ages 7 to 15, needs her, and in a pandemic that has drastically limited travel options, she can’t go home. Most international flights from Mexico have been reduced. Colombia slashed any international travel.
Come April, more than 90% of the world’s population lived in countries with travel restrictions, according to the Pew Research center and, until Thursday, the U.S. had a global “Do Not Travel” advisory.
Along with other au pairs, Guzman extended her stay by six months, passing the average one- to two-year goalpost that fulfills their contracts with the State Department, which offers the program.
Fortunately, Guzman secured her paperwork before President Donald Trump’s executive order in June, which bans the working visas that allow her to work in the states. The upcoming program year was canceled.
It’s fallen to current au pairs to provide a necessary stability — a lifeline — as working parents navigate the profound shift that has upended routine and debilitated access to child care.
For many families, the limited or nonexistent options in a pandemic has taken its toll as day care centers across the country closed their doors. For those who relied on these programs, it’s a devastating balance of working to put food on the table and being a parent to their kids.
In 2018, more than 1,600 families in Virginia had au pairs. Across the U.S., the number is in the tens of thousands, offering a temporary but vital solution for parents who would otherwise be left scrambling.
The U.S. program, made up of predominantly women of color between the ages of 18 and 26, provides a J-1 working visa, or a cultural exchange opportunity, with the ability to extend past a year. Requirements include English proficiency, enrolling in academic courses, passing background checks and completing a series of interviews and 32 hours of child care training.
The process can cost upward of $1,000 for au pairs — for Guzman, it was a total of $1,375 — as they navigate the web of visa applications and approval. The price tag is more than they’ll make in a month. By law, they can’t take another job. In return, they live in the family’s home where meals are included and transportation and medical insurance is offered. They get two weeks’ vacation and at least one weekend off a month, per the State Department’s rules — a bonus that entices au pairs from abroad to come to the U.S. to travel.
The average wages offered to au pairs is $195.75 a week for 45 hours of work, or around $4.35 an hour. Wages aren’t required to be adjusted in the case of larger families as they are in day care centers or for nannies, who differ from au pairs since they’re local and not all live in-house or work full time. In Richmond, the average weekly wage for a nanny taking care of a family with two children is $686, according to Care.com.
Virginia is one of the most expensive states for child care. The average cost for a family with two children is about $24,929 per year, or about $2,100 a month, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The average median income in Virginia is $71,564, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and to afford child care, a typical family would have to spend nearly 35% of its income.
But while the au pair program is more affordable, its low wages have prompted complaints in previous years, especially since there’s no guarantee au pairs will be assigned to “good” host families.
Angelica Cruz, 27, has heard the horror stories of mistreatment and feels lucky that she was placed with people she now calls family and children — a teenager, a 4-year-old and a 5-month-old — who’ve taught her there’s still joy to be had in quarantine.
Cruz, who’s from Bogota, Colombia, has seen the 5-month-old grow up; how the 4-year-old questions everything and always giggles. She knows they’ll be difficult to leave behind.
“I’m not a teacher, but teaching them things ... it’s been so much fun for me honestly,” said Cruz, who’s also the godmother to the youngest child. “I wonder how the dynamic will change and what we’ll do once summer is over. Their parents are still deciding whether to bring them to school or keep them at home for virtual learning.”
Within the span of a year and a half, Cruz — along with the more than 20 au pairs who fluctuate in and out of Richmond — have traveled to Los Angeles, the Grand Canyon, San Francisco, New York City, Atlanta and beaches in Florida. Their next vacation was lined up to be in Chicago, where they’d heard of deep dish pizza and the giant metallic bean-looking sculpture called Cloud Gate. The pandemic stripped that from them. They haven’t seen one another in weeks.
Maria Delgado, an au pair from Veracruz, Mexico, said the isolation and taking care of kids who don’t understand why they can’t play with their friends has been an adjustment. Preschoolers get bored quickly, she joked.
“They’re kids. If we, as adults, have trouble concentrating on something, imagine telling a kid to stay seated and pay attention to a screen,” Delgado said of her preschooler’s 30-minute classes. “I ended up almost taking the class with her, and that’s been difficult.”
Throughout the day, Delgado stops the young girl from sprinting up the stairs to her mother’s at-home office. She craves the attention a working parent in a pandemic can’t always offer, and clings to the moments she successfully sneaks in.
“No, no. Your mama’s on a call,” Delgado tells her.
In a few weeks, kindergarten begins.