J-1 Workers Have Rights Too; Students Awarded Back Pay After Filing Claims of Abusive Conditions

Exploitation of J-visa workers has popped up in the news again, with the Department of Labor reaching a settlement with three companies to pay $213,000 in back wages to foreign students who were hired for summer work in Pennsylvania at a Hershey’s Chocolate packing plant.

The settlement resolves claims against the three companies for their respective roles in recruiting and employing 1,028 foreign students who were participating in the State Department’s J-1 Summer Work Travel program, which is designed to promote educational and cultural exchange.

The three companies are: The Council for Educational Travel-USA (CETUSA), which acted as the students’ sponsor in the program, Excel, Inc., which operated the Hershey’s packing plant where the students worked, and The SHS Group, LP, which hired and placed the students at the Excel work site. Hershey was not a named defendant in the claims.

The companies’ violations first made headlines in 2011 when the J-1 student workers held a strike at the packing plant, alleging they were working in harsh conditions, such as heavy lifting and having pay dedutions that left them with less than the minimum wage for living.

The department’s Wage and Hour Division investigation found violations of the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as a result of excessive housing costs charged to the foreign students employed at the Palmyra facility, which reduced their hourly wages below the amount they were required to be paid under the FLSA.

Excel also was fined $143,000 for violations of safety and health violations in connection with the foreign employees’ working conditions, including excessive noise levels, and DOL assessed an additional civil money penalty against SHS for repeat violations of the Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Earlier this year, DOS debarred CETUSA from participating in the J program for two years for the violations and revised J-1 program rules to add additional protections for student guestworkers.

The Department of Labor has issued a detailed press release on the case here: http://www.dol.gov/opa/media/press/osha/OSHA20122169.htm#.UKPmReOe9mg

The case was pursued by the National Guestworker Alliance. http://www.guestworkeralliance.org/tag/j-1-visa/

J-1 Workers Susceptible to Fraud and Exploitation

While the media abounds with stories about H-1B fraud, the employer violations occurring within the J-1 program are not as well publicized and perhaps not as well reported. J-1 workers are just as susceptible as H-1B employees to becoming victims of fraud due to their dependence on their sponsor to work and their lack of knowledge about their legal rights.

If you are a J-1 worker and are being underpaid, you may be eligible to pursue claims against your employer. You should seek competent legal advice promptly to avoid losing your legal rights and missing any filing deadlines.

For more information about legal services the law firms DVG Law Partner and VK Vandaveer PLLC offer to foreign workers, including J-1 employees, see our page here or contact us at mbrown@dvglawpartner.com or vonda@vkvlaw.com.


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