Treatment of students protested

Polish-American groups call for investigation into McDonald's program

August 03, 2002|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

Declaring that the treatment of some foreign students brought to Maryland on a work and travel program is "immoral if not illegal," a coalition of Polish American groups is calling for congressional hearings to end abuses.

Members of the Maryland chapter of the Polish American Congress unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the hearings after a Thursday meeting. They heard one of the students describe how he and his colleagues were recruited to work in a McDonald's restaurant in Edgewood and saw their first paychecks reduced to nothing because of rent and other deductions.

Five of the students, who came from Poland and Slovakia, were being charged $2,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in Abingdon, nearly triple the ordinary monthly rental rate of $750. The contract they signed listed McDonald's as the landlord. Each of them was also required to pay a $200 security deposit on the apartment.

"It's immoral, if it's not illegal," said Edward B. Rybczynski, who offered the resolution. "We're talking about people being used and abused. It's un-American."

The resolution asks members of the Maryland congressional delegation to hold hearings on the apparent abuses and to propose amendments to the law requiring the licensing of any recruiters. The group also asked state officials to investigate.

State Del. Carolyn J. Krysiak, a Baltimore Democrat who attended the Thursday meeting, said she would personally convey the request to Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.

"The Polish American Congress hereby states its abhorrence and disgust with the profit and nonprofit companies" involved in the mistreatment of students, the resolution states.

Robert L. Palmer, McDonald's Corp. regional marketing director, said yesterday that he could not respond to the comments made at the meeting, but he strongly defended the program and said that the company has taken steps to correct problems and answer complaints from the students.

Palmer said the company would look into charges that the rent is excessive. The students' pay had been reduced to zero, he said, because they had not worked for a full, two-week pay period. He also denied charges from some students that they were sent home from work early, depriving them of a full-day's wage.

On Tuesday, The Sun reported that contrary to federal law, Social Security and Medicare deductions were being taken from some of the students' checks. Palmer said students were being reimbursed for the incorrect deductions and said the problem occurred because they hadn't filled out the proper forms.

According to McDonald's officials, some 400 foreign students have been recruited to work for up to four months in the chain's restaurants in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. The visas were issued through the New York City-based Council for International Educational Exchange.

The J-1 visa work/travel program under which the students were admitted is overseen by the U.S. State Department, which is investigating the complaints.

Lukasz Lazuch, one of the students now working in Edgewater, told the Polish American group that when they first arrived in Abingdon he and his colleagues were pressured into immediately signing a three-page rental contract and other documents, locking them into the rent and employment arrangements.

Lazuch said that under the contract he will lose his $200 security deposit on the apartment if he quits the job. He and his fellow workers also complained that they have to pay $20 in round-trip cab fare to get from their apartment to the restaurant and back. He said that instead of making a lot of money, as they were promised when they were recruited, they barely had enough money to get by.

"I want to run away," Lazuch said, adding that he just couldn't afford to walk out.

Richard Poremski, who lead the Thursday meeting, said that when he visited the students in Abingdon earlier in the day, he discovered a group of Indonesian recruits had arrived.

"They are in the same boat. They are being screwed," Poremski said, adding that while visiting the students he also saw the McDonald's recruiter, Donna Maertens, who was driving "a beautiful black Mercedes."

Although the students said otherwise, Maertens, whom Palmer described as a consultant to the restaurant chain, maintained earlier this week that "they know all the conditions. No one holds the pen in their hands. No one's forcing them to do anything."

In addition to adopting the resolution, the Polish American group took up a collection for the students, and one member, Krystyna Osowski, agreed to begin a search for other jobs and living arrangements for the students. The group agreed to meet again next week to get a status report on efforts to help the students.

"It's just unacceptable," said Jim Mislak, president of the local chapter of another group, the Polish National Alliance, referring to the students' current conditions.

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