State Department faults McDonald's work program

Foreign students' claims of exploitation `well founded,' initial investigation shows

August 27, 2002|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

A preliminary State Department investigation of charges by some foreign students that they were being exploited by the McDonald's restaurant chain has concluded that the students' complaints were "well founded."

In a letter to U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a State Department official wrote that the agency was aware of "the unfortunate situation" faced by students who came here to work for the fast-food chain under a summer work/travel program.

"We have also determined that the complaints by the five students ... are well founded," wrote Paul V. Kelly, assistant secretary of legislative affairs, in the letter sent late last week to the Maryland Democrat.

The Sun reported last month that students from Poland and Slovakia complained that so much money was deducted from their initial paychecks that their net pay was zero. The bulk of the deductions were to pay $2,000-a-month rent for five students sharing a two-bedroom apartment in Abingdon. The students said they were told that if they didn't accept the apartment-rental arrangement, they would lose their promised jobs.

They were also charged $200 each for a security deposit. Other deductions were made for Social Security and Medicare coverage, despite the fact that the students were legally exempt from making those payments.

After the article was published, McDonald's officials said the students were refunded for the improper Medicare and Social Security deductions.

Robert L. Palmer, McDonald's regional marketing director, also promised to look into students' complaints that the rent for the apartment was excessive. The two-bedroom units in Abingdon rent for $750 a month under a one-year lease.

McDonald's officials were unavailable for comment yesterday.

400 recruited to area

More than 400 foreign students were recruited to work this summer at McDonald's outlets in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

They came to the United States under a government-sanctioned educational exchange program in which students work three months and take an additional month to travel. The students were recruited by Donna Maertens, a Virginia woman who serves as a consultant to the fast-food chain.

Kelly wrote in his letter that the McDonald's recruits were among about 6,400 Polish students who came to the United States under the auspices of the Council on International Educational Exchange, a nonprofit corporation based in New York City. CIEE is one of several organizations authorized by the State Department to issue work/travel visas.

Working for refunds

In his letter, Kelly said the CIEE was working with McDonald's officials to ensure that the students named in the article get a refund of their security deposits.

"We understand that McDonald's is also reviewing this matter to ensure that this situation is not repeated," the Kelly letter concluded.

Amy Hagovsky, a spokeswoman for Mikulski, said the senator is expecting a more complete report from the State Department once the investigation is complete.

Hagovsky said that when Congress ends its recess, the senator plans to review the report and determine what action is needed to see that the problems do not recur next year.

Help from Polish group

Several of the students recruited by McDonald's have since abandoned their jobs and living arrangements, and found other jobs and apartments with the help of the local chapter of the Polish American Congress.

The local chapter, headed by Charles J. Slomski, brought the plight of the students to the attention of Mikulski, who, in turn, asked the State Department to initiate the investigation.

Les Kuczynski, executive director of the Polish American Congress' national office in Chicago, said that though there appears to be relief available for the students recruited by McDonald's, hundreds of other students from Poland remain stranded in the United States because promised jobs did not exist.

He said there have been reports of foreign students stranded from Florida to Washington state.

"There are serious questions about this program that so far have not been answered," Kuczynski said, adding that his agency has been trying to assist those students who come seeking help in finding jobs or housing.

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