How to hire the right au pair
Grainne Cunningham investigates the best and cheapest ways to find a select a stranger to mind your children
Child-care costs in Ireland are crippling for many families, with parents paying the equivalent of a second mortgage to the creche or minder once child number two and three come along.
Thousands of families have saved a considerable amount of money by having a live-in au pair who, for a relatively modest sum of money every week, will look after the children and do a little light housework.
Smart Consumer examined the best and cheapest ways to select a stranger to mind your precious little ones from the tens of thousands of applicants available.
There is a stark difference in the fees charged by au pair agencies and au pair websites.
For as little as €29, you can have access to lists of girls (and a few boys) from all over the world, who are all keen to come and live with an Irish family.
The au pair agencies justify their significantly higher fees on the basis that they do the vetting for you.
Some will even do police checks and offer basic training to the au pair. And if it all goes wrong, they will find a replacement for the family.
Caroline Joyce of Cara International, a 12-year-old au pair agency based in Mayo, stresses the importance of managing expectations of both parties.
She charges a €50 registration fee plus €90 for each month the au pair spends with the host family.
For that fee, the family receives a 24-hour service if there is an urgent problem, all au pairs are subject to a police check and they are interviewed thoroughly before being placed in a family.
"The problem with a lot of online agencies is that the au pairs are not vetted or checked. If there is a problem, then there is a problem," Caroline says.
And, on the other hand, families using the websites may abuse the au pair, by demanding she/he work too many hours or by restricting their freedom such as withholding their passport and, in extreme cases, by locking them in.
Caroline concedes that, with all the checks in the world, the relationship does not always work, often because of a personality clash.
"You can have two strong women who don't get on but put that girl into another family and it works great."
One family had a problem with an au pair who was buying herself salmon every day from the household budget but once the issue was addressed, with the help of Cara, the relationship was a huge success and there were tears when she left.
If you use a website like www.aupairireland.ie, run by Cormac Maher, there will be no one to offer advice or support when things go wrong. But then, the price is very different too.
For just €20, you have 60 days' access to the profiles of thousands of prospective au pairs.
"The advantage of using a jobs site like ours is that you get to pick and choose. Using a traditional agency does not always work out.
"With us, you can effectively design your own au pair," he says.
However, Cormac admits that the system can be open to exploitation.
Recently one family was seeking a live-out au pair and was offering to pay her just €3 an hour, when she should have been entitled to the minimum wage, plus holiday pay and other benefits. The advert went viral.
But Cormac did not remove it. "That would open a can of worms for us. We would have to play judge and jury."
His key advice to families using a website to select an au pair is to as "give a really good job description".
Whichever selection method a family decides to use, expect to pay the au pair €80-€120 a week for about 25 hours of childcare and light housework per week. If you require more hours, you will need to pay more, up to 200 for 40 hours a week.
'I do hours of research before offering a placement'
Mother-of-two Leanne Geraghty has employed five au pairs over the past four years and she has always used a website (www.aupairworld.net) to find them.
She pays a registration fee of €39.90 for 45 days' access to the profiles of the girls.
Leanne, whose children Anna and Ethan were just three and one when she started, has had a very positive experience. But she stresses that she does hours of research before offering a placement to an au pair.
"It's better to do that thoroughly," she says.
So on each occasion, Leanne has emailed several girls with a list of questions as well as a clear description of the duties she will be expected to perform.
After a number of emails have been exchanged, Leanne said she gets a fairly good idea of what the girl is like and whether she would fit in with their family.
The au pairs' main duty was to mind the children, particularly Ethan who was at home alone in the mornings while his bigger sister was at creche and then school.
"Ethan formed very strong bonds with them.
"He was getting all that one-on-one attention," she said.
Of course, that also meant he missed them when they left, although Leanne has found that he does bond with the next girl after a while.
"I found them to be really, really flexible but then I'm flexible with them," Leanne said.
However, other friends have not been so fortunate and she knows families who have had to ask the au pair to leave.
Overall, though, Leanne has enjoyed having au pairs and would recommend it as a child-care option to families with enough space.