Sully Fernanda Alquinga Defaz was looking for an opportunity to jumpstart her career in hospitality management.
She discovered the J-1 intern and trainee program through a brochure at her college in Ecuador. A recruiter introduced her to a sponsor, whose materials boasted that J-1 workers would receive “the knowledge, practical training, leadership and multicultural skills” necessary to succeed as a hospitality industry leader.
It sounded like the big break she’d been seeking. It was not only an opportunity to get the training she needed, but she would receive it at an American resort.
Sully paid nearly $3,000 for the opportunity, including $1,500 in fees to the Ecuadorian recruiter and the J-1 sponsor. Before leaving for the U.S., she received a signed, detailed training plan from her sponsor. It guaranteed advanced training in management, leadership, supervision, scheduling and customer service.
It appeared as if everything was on track.
After Sully arrived in the U.S. in 2011, the sponsor placed her in the food and beverage department at the Embassy Suites Oceanside Resort in Myrtle Beach, S.C. She spent her time wiping down tables, mopping, polishing silverware and sweeping – a far cry from the management training she was promised.
She never received any advanced training.
“When I arrived to the U.S. and started working, I felt tricked,” she said. “I would have never invested so much money in the program had I known it was not going to be a training experience. But I had spent so much money to participate that I couldn’t just turn around and leave.”
Her payday was below the federal minimum wage as well. She was paid a $200 stipend every two weeks for performing at least 40 hours of work each week.
Sully and some of her co-workers filed complaints against the J-1 sponsor and the hotel with the Departments of State and Labor. The Department of Labor collected back wages on Sully’s behalf for the minimum wage violations. Despite this success, Sully knows other J-1 interns and trainees may not be so fortunate. And even in Sully’s case, it was only a partial victory. Though the Department of Labor found that the sponsor was violating wage and hour laws, the State Department still has not sanctioned the sponsor.
“I’m happy I recouped some of the money I lost, but I worry that my sponsor and other J-1 sponsors are continuing to recruit young people with false promises,” she said.