A report in Law360 online, says the students, claiming to be “survivors of human trafficking”, had shelled out high recruitment fees, got paid less than promised and were threatened with physical harm if they tried to quit.
The proposed class action, led by plaintiffs Dorret Francis,Anthony Kennedyand Christine Pearce, claims that Walter Schumacher and Carolyn Schumacher used a J-1 sponsor organization — Apex USA Inc., which they controlled and operated — to recruit staff for the hospitality businesses that they also owned and operated in Clinton, Oklahoma.
The businesses included the Holiday Inn Express, the Hampton Inn, a steakhouse and an indoor water park.
“Defendants’ overseas recruiting agents defrauded plaintiffs and other putative class members throughout the recruitment process, inducing them to pay substantial fees for recruitment, immigration processing and travel with promises of full-time, good-paying jobs and suitable housing,” the complaint said.
“After plaintiffs and the putative class members arrived in Oklahoma, defendants caused them to believe that if they did not work exclusively for defendants, they would suffer abuse of the legal process and serious financial and reputational harms.”
Francis came to Oklahoma when she was 23 to help pay her way through college. She arrived in Clinton in June 2008 and went to work at Montana Mike’s Steakhouse, hoping to use her summer wages to pay for her school tuition and rent, according to the suit.
She accepted the work offer after meeting Walter Schumacher at an Apex job fair in Jamaica, where he falsely promised a typical work week of 40 to 60 hours, pay of $2.13 to $7 per hour plus tips, and accommodation in multistudent housing that would cost her only $60 per week, the suit said.
“I came because of all the promises, but they were not kept. It was devastating for me,” Francis said in a statement provided by theAmerican Civil Liberties Unionof Oklahoma, whose lawyers are representing the Jamaican students.
Similarly, Pearce arrived in Clinton in 2011 and Kennedy arrived in 2012 after they believed the promises of the Schumachers’ recruitment scheme that induced foreign nationals to pay “hefty fees” to work under the J-1 work-study program, the suit said.
Members of the proposed class allegedly worked as housekeepers at Holiday Inn Express or the Hampton Inn Clinton at a rate of pay between $4 and $4.25 for each room cleaned. But the job was time-consuming, so only a small number of rooms could be cleaned each day, according to the suit, which also said the piece rate did not satisfy the hotels’ contractual promises or minimum wage requirements.
When the proposed class members thought about leaving, they realized they could not return home because they had incurred substantial debts to pay for the Apex recruitment fees and other expenses, the suit said.
“Plaintiffs and putative class members could not have left defendants’ employ without first earning enough to repay those debts, which became impossible once defendants deliberately reduced plaintiffs’ and putative class members’ working hours and wage rates, and imposed unexpected living expenses,” the suit said.
The student workers were also subjected to threats of physical harm from Walter Schumacher, who allegedly told them he carried a firearm in his car and was a police sheriff with close ties to law enforcement authorities in Clinton, according to the suit. Schumacher and other supervisors also threatened the students with deportation when they complained about their wages and working conditions, the suit said.
Meanwhile, Francis tried to land a second job in Clinton with an employer who wasn’t controlled by the Schumachers, but when they learned about her attempts to find new employment they allegedly retaliated against her by changing her work schedule so that maintaining a second job would be impossible, according to the suit. In addition, Pearce was denied a position at a local K-Mart, “and the reason provided was that she worked for defendants,” the suit said.
The workers took action after learning of a similar lawsuit filed in July 2017 against most of the same defendants on behalf of workers recruited from the Philippines to work under the H-2B guest worker program, according to the Oklahoma ACLU.
“As detailed in the complaint, these students came to the United States to participate in a cultural exchange program, and were promised good jobs and decent accommodations,“ Caitlin Boehne, one of the attorneys representing the Jamaican students, said in a statement. “Thanks to defendants’ underhanded tactics, the only ‘culture’ that they were exposed to was one of exploitation and disrespect. Defendants’ bait-and-switch left them destitute, in deplorable living conditions and indebted for years.”
The class is believed to include between 50 and 100 individuals, though finding all members will be difficult because they are foreign nationals and migrant workers, according to the complaint.
The suit alleges violations of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. It seeks actual damages, including restitution, compensatory damages and punitive damages.
Representatives for the Schumachers did not immediately respond Monday to requests for comment.
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