On December 2, 2019, in Capron v. Attorney General of Massachusetts, 944 F.3d 9 (2019) (“Capron”), the First Circuit Court of Appeals held that federal laws regulating the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program for au pairs (“Au Pair Program”) do not preempt Massachusetts wage and hour laws applicable to domestic worker arrangements: Massachusetts Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act (“DWBRA”), G.L. c. 149, §§ 190–191, and the Massachusetts’ Fair Wage Law, G.L. c. 151, § 1. This means that host families in the Commonwealth are obligated to pay au pairs at least the state minimum wage ($12.75/hour effective January 1, 2020) and overtime, higher compensation than the federal $7.25 hourly rate currently required under the Au Pair Program. It also means that host families–as employers of domestic workers–must become familiar with the DWBRA’s requirements because failure to comply with Massachusetts wage and hour laws can expose host families to substantial damages, including treble damages, attorneys’ fees and costs. See Andrea Peraner-Sweet, How to Hire a Domestic Worker and Stay Out of Trouble, 62 Boston Bar J. (Summer 2018).
The Au Pair Program And Its Compensation
As described in Capron, the Au Pair Program is a cultural exchange program regulated by the United States Department of State (“DOS”) through which foreign individuals can obtain J-1 Visas and be matched with United States host families to provide up to 45 hours a week of child care services while pursuing a post-secondary education. 22 C.F.R. § 62.31. The DOS administers the Au Pair Program through private placement agencies it designates to conduct DOS-approved exchange programs (“Sponsors). The Sponsors select and match participants with host families. 22. C.F.R. § 62.10.
The Au Pair Program regulations require Sponsors to ensure that au pairs are compensated “at a weekly rate based upon 45 hours of child care services per week and paid in conformance with the requirements of the [FLSA] as interpreted and implemented by the [Department of Labor (DOL)].” 22 C.F.R. § 62.31(j)(1). The DOL has determined that Au Pair Program participants are “employees” within the meaning of FLSA and, thus, entitled to federal minimum wage. 29 U.S.C. § 206(a). The FLSA, however, exempts live-in domestic workers from overtime payment. 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(21). DOL regulations also permit deductions for the costs of room and board: either a fixed credit amount that is tied to a percentage of the federal minimum wage, or the actual, itemized costs, provided the itemized deductions are supported by adequate records. 29 C.F.R. § 552.100(c)–(d). Importantly, as the First Circuit notes, the FLSA contains a savings clause that “[n]o provision of this chapter or of any order thereunder shall excuse noncompliance with any Federal or State law or municipal ordinance establishing a minimum wage higher than the minimum wage established under this chapter.” 944 F.3d at 18 (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 218(a)).
Massachusetts Au Pair Compensation
The DWBRA defines au pairs as “employees” and “domestic workers” and their host families as “employers.” G.L. c. 149, § 190(a). Under the DWBRA and Fair Wage Law, au pairs are entitled to the state minimum wage and overtime pay at 1.5 times the hourly rate for “working time” over 40 hours per week. G.L. c. 151, § 1; 940 C.M.R. 32.03(3). An au pair’s “working time” includes all hours that the au pair is required to be on duty including meal, rest and sleep periods unless during those periods the au pair is free to leave the host family’s premises, use the time for their sole benefit and is relieved of all duties during these time periods. Id., 32.02. Host families are required to keep records of an au pair’s hours worked. Id., 32.04(2). The DWBRA also permits deductions for lodging and food, if agreed to in advance and in writing by the domestic worker, which are at a fixed credit amount of $35 per week for a single-occupancy room and $1.25 for breakfast, $2.25 for lunch, and $2.25 for dinner. Id., 32.03(5)(b)-(c).
Additionally, au pairs are entitled to at least 24 consecutive hours of rest when working 40 hours per week, workers’ compensation, sick time, and notice of why and when the host family may enter their living space.
In 2016, in response to enactment of the DWBRA, Cultural Care, Inc., a Sponsor au pair placement agency and two former Massachusetts hosts (“Plaintiffs”), sought declaratory and injunctive relief from the United States District Court claiming that the federal laws governing the Au Pair Program impliedly preempted Massachusetts wage and hour laws with respect to au pairs. The District Court found no preemption and dismissed the action, and Plaintiffs appealed.
The Plaintiffs claimed that the Au Pair Program preempted Massachusetts wage and hour laws under “field preemption” and/or “obstacle preemption.” Under “field preemption,” Plaintiffs argued that the detailed regulatory scheme governing the Au Pair Program together with the federal interest in regulating immigration and managing foreign relations evidenced the federal government’s intent to “occupy the field” of regulation of au pairs, thereby preempting state laws and regulations that might otherwise apply to au pairs. 944 F. 3d at 22. Under “obstacle preemption,” Plaintiffs argued that compliance with Massachusetts wage and hour laws would create an obstacle to achieving the underlying purposes and objectives of the Au Pair Program by frustrating the federal intent to “set a uniform, nationwide ceiling” on compensation obligations and recordkeeping and administrative burdens. Id. at 26-27.
The First Circuit rejected Plaintiffs’ arguments, concluding that Plaintiffs failed to sustain their burden of proving either field or obstacle preemption. The Court determined that Plaintiffs’ reliance on the DOS’s comprehensive and detailed regulations was insufficient to demonstrate a federal intent to oust a whole field of state employment measures, a “quintessentially local area of regulation.” Id. at 22. Rather, the Court opined: “It is hardly evident that a federal foreign affairs interest in creating a ‘friendly’ and ‘cooperative’ spirit with other nations is advanced by a program of cultural exchange that, by design, would authorize foreign nationals to be paid less than Americans performing the same work.” Id. at 26.
The Court also rejected Plaintiffs’ obstacle preemption claim that enforcement of Massachusetts’ employment laws would frustrate a federal objective of establishing a nationally uniform compensation scheme for au pair participants. Noting that “the text of the au pair exchange regulations…does not supply the requisite affirmative evidence that the state law measures would pose an obstacle to the accomplishment of the purposes and objectives of the Au Pair Program,” the First Circuit concluded, “[i]n fact, the text of the regulations reflects the DOS’s intention to ensure that the regulations would accommodate the DOL’s [Department of Labor] determination that au pair participants are employees who are entitled to be protected by an independent wage and hour law that is not itself preemptive….[and] that the DOS contemplated that state employment laws would protect exchange visitor program participants from their employers.” Id. at 32-33 (underline in original).
What do host families need to know now?
It is not yet clear whether Capron will apply retroactively or whether Massachusetts host families will be liable for back wages for au pairs who were not compensated in accordance with state wage and hour laws. The Attorney General’s office has indicated that, “at this time,” its focus is on ensuring that au pair agencies bring their programs into compliance with Massachusetts laws and it does not intend to enforce the DWBRA or other wage and hour laws against host families. The Attorney General’s office does note, however, that it has no control over private litigation. As of the time of this writing, at least three putative class action suits and one other action, all by private individuals, have been filed in Middlesex Superior Court against several Sponsor au pair agencies. No action has yet to be filed against any host families.
Andrea Peraner-Sweet is a partner at Fitch Law Partners LLP. Her practice focuses on general business litigation with an emphasis on employment litigation as well as probate litigation. Andrea is a current member of the Boston Bar Journal.
Lauren D. Song is a Senior Attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services where her practice focuses on affordable housing preservation and development through public-private partnerships. Lauren is a current member of the Boston Bar Journal.