FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: June 22, 2020
Contact: Evy Peña (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Baltimore, Maryland — Today, former au pair workers Sandra Peters (née Guzman-Reyes) and Tatiana Cuenca filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court, seeking compensatory and punitive damages for breach of contract, unpaid wages, forced labor, and trafficking. Peters and Cuenca allege working hour violations, unpaid wages, routine verbal abuse, and threats. The sponsor agency AuPairCare Inc. and host parents Michaele C. Samuel and Adam Ishaeik are named as defendants. Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM), a transnational migrants rights organization, and Kahn, Smith & Collins, P.A. are representing the plaintiffs.
Peters and Cuenca were recruited in Mexico and Colombia, respectively, to work as au pairs on J-1 visas. They arrived to work in Clinton, Maryland indebted after paying thousands of dollars in program fees. While Peters and Cuenca worked for the Samuel family separately, in 2016 and 2018, they described similar working conditions. In addition to forcing the plaintiffs to work beyond contracted hours and responsibilities, the host parents limited their access to food, restricted their movements, threatened them with deportation, and constantly monitored them through a network of surveillance cameras. Defendant Michaele C. Samuel offers her book, “Being a Great Au Pair: A Practical Guide,” for $7.95 on Amazon.
“I am proud to be suing the family alongside Tatiana — we are seeking justice not only for us but for all the other au pairs who lived with this and other families and have suffered like we did,” stated Sandra Peters. “I believe that if au pairs hear about our case, they will arm themselves with courage and take action. Host families will know that they can’t get away with abusing us.”
Established by the Department of State as a “cultural exchange”, the program allows young people — mostly women — from around the world to work in the United States providing childcare services. On paper, the J-1 program limits au pair’s work to childcare, but abuses have been rampant in the program since its inception in 1986.
“Our case is a clear example of how the au pair program puts young women at risk for rights violations. My sponsor agency and the State Department failed to support me when I was being abused and threatened,” said Tatiana Cuenca. “The program should be restructured in a way that provides access to justice for workers like us. We deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Due to the influential au pair lobby, legislators and the State Department have been reluctant to increase protections and enforcement. According to news reports, the State Department is planning to further scale back protections, requiring employers only pay au pairs the federal minimum wage. The rule is at odds with a December ruling in the First Circuit that stated au pairs in Massachusetts must be paid the higher state wage.
“The au pair program is a labor migration program. Au pairs, who are providing essential caregiving services to families across the country, are paying to work,” said Sulma Guzman, policy director at CDM. “Their immigration status is tied to their employment. If they speak out to defend their rights, they fear being banned from the program. With au pairs paying substantial fees to work under the program, they often have no choice but to remain in abusive conditions, rather than return home to debt.”
“This case further illustrates that not all au pairs are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve,” said Christopher Ryon, one of the attorneys for the Plaintiffs. “Au pairs remain vulnerable to abuse and wage theft.”
In 2018, Migration That Works, a coalition chaired by CDM, released “Shortchanged: The Big Business Behind the Low Wage J-1 Au Pair Program,” detailing how the “cultural exchange” program has morphed into an exploitative system of low wage domestic labor. The full report can be found at: https://migrationthatworks.org/reports/shortchanged/
About Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM)
Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM) envisions a world where migrant workers’ rights are respected, and laws and policies reflect their voices. Through education, outreach, and leadership development; intake, evaluation, and referral services; litigation support and direct representation; and policy advocacy; CDM empowers Mexico-based migrant workers to defend and protect their rights as they move between their home communities in Mexico and their workplaces in the United States. www.cdmigrante.org
About Kahn, Smith & Collins, P.A
The attorneys at Kahn, Smith & Collins, P.A. advocate for fairness at work. This Baltimore based Firm represents workers and labor unions in private and public employment and is dedicated to improving the conditions of workers.