Foreign students' pay wiped out by deductions

J-1 visa: Some who expected a profitable summer working at McDonald's netted zero on their paycheck.

July 30, 2002|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

When Peter Kasprzyk and several other students from Poland and Slovakia arrived in Harford County in late June to work for the McDonald's restaurant chain, they said they'd been told they would make a lot of money, "more money than you could imagine."

But Kasprzyk couldn't buy an item from the dollar menu with his first paycheck. It was zero.

That's because he and four fellow students were being docked for $2,000 monthly rent on a two-bedroom apartment they share in Abingdon that normally goes for $750 in a longer-term lease. That deduction wiped out every cent Kasprzyk had made flipping hamburgers for $8 an hour at the fast-food franchise on Pulaski Highway in Edgewood.

On top of those deductions, Kasprzyk had to pay $200 toward the apartment security deposit and share the $20 roundtrip cab fare to work.

"We were taken advantage of," said Kasprzyk, 22, who decided Friday to walk away from the job and risk forfeiting his share of the security deposit. He said he was looking for work in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

McDonald's, which was listed as Kasprzyk's landlord on the unsigned duplicate of the three-page apartment lease he received, declined to comment on the students' situation. Officials at the corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., referred questions to the regional office in Baltimore, which in turn referred all questions to Donna Maertens of Stafford, Va.

She is the woman who has recruited about 400 foreign students this year for temporary jobs at McDonald's outlets in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

"Before they came here, they signed a contract," Maertens said. "They were told everything. They have orientation sessions. They know all the conditions. No one holds the pen in their hands. No one's forcing them to do anything."

Kasprzyk and his colleagues dispute that, saying they were pressured by Maertens' agent to sign the English-language rental agreement without adequate time to read it and figure out what it meant. Similar pressure, they said, was exerted by her overseas agents when the students signed an employment contract.

The students came to the United States under J-1 visas as part of a work-travel program authorized by the State Department. Maertens said the visas were issued through the Council on International Educational Exchange, a New York-based nonprofit that brings thousands of foreign students to this country every year.

Stanley Colvin, head of the State Department bureau that oversees the work-travel visa program, said late last week that the students' complaints were being investigated.

Under the program, foreign students can spend up to four months working in the United States and take an additional month for travel.

Kasprzyk and his fellow workers said they each paid $500 to sign up with Maertens' program; air fare was an additional $1,000.

They expected to spend a profitable summer but were swiftly disappointed. Instead of working eight-hour shifts, they said, they were sent home when business slowed down. "It's hypocritical," Kasprzyk said. "They smile only to tell you, `Go home.'"

As a result, Kasprzyk worked only 17.22 hours during his first two-week pay period, ending July 6, to gross $137.76, according to his pay stub.

But that amount was wiped out by deductions. The pay stub, which misspells his name as "Piotr J. Kasprzk," shows $2 was subtracted for Medicare and $8.54 for Social Security. These deductions were made even though students participating in the J-1 program are exempt, Colvin said.

The largest amount subtracted was under "voluntary deductions": $127.22 for "crew housing deduction." Added to the payments for Medicare and Social Security, the deductions totaled $137.76, the full amount he had earned.

Kasprzyk was not the only foreign student to have his pay wiped out by deductions. When the students complained to their manager in Edgewood, they were told to take it up with Maertens.

But "after a big [argument], he gave us $40 or $50 apiece," Kasprzyk said.

Kasprzyk said the students also complained to the Council on International Educational Exchange but were told the same thing they had heard from Maertens: You signed a contract, now you have to live with it.

"That doesn't sound right," CIEE spokeswoman Pamela Posey said, adding that she was "not specifically aware" of the complaints.

"It could be a misunderstanding or a lack of clear communication," said Posey, who promised to look into the matter.

Maertens said the rent was higher than normal because the lease was short term and included furnishings and utilities.

"There's a premium on the rent because it's for a shortened period," she said.

"It's really only $15 a day," Maertens said, deducted at a rate of $100 a week for each student. Kasprzyk's housing deduction covered a portion of a second week.

"You're not going to get to talk to anyone else [from McDonald's] - that's why you were referred to me," said Maertens, who would not say whether she was an employee of McDonald's or an independent contractor.

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