Guest workers encounter rampant wage theft, and it comes in many forms. Common practices include minimum wage violations disguised by complicated piece-rate pay schemes, underreporting of hours, failure to pay overtime, and unlawful deductions from workers’ pay for tools, safety equipment, travel expenses and other items.
Employers frequently fail to reimburse guest workers for the money they spend on visa fees and transportation costs, effectively bringing their first week’s pay below the federal minimum wage.
Guest worker encounters wage and hour abuses
In early 2009, Julia* arrived in Florida on an H-2B visa to work as a hotel housekeeper. She was recruited in Jamaica by a recruiter who promised her good wages, affordable housing and full-time work.
She paid nearly $1,500 for recruitment and visa fees, airfare and other transportation expenses for the opportunity to work in the United States – money she had to borrow. When Julia arrived, she was surprised to discover that she would actually be working for a hospitality subcontractor at an entirely different hotel than the one that had sponsored her visa.
After nearly a month of working 40 hours or more a week cleaning hotel rooms, Julia and her co-workers had not received a single paycheck.
Deeply in debt from their travel and visa expenses, and without any income, Julia and her co-workers were forced to eat the food left behind by hotel guests. They also relied on the few workers who had relatives in the U.S. to purchase food and provide them with transportation to the grocery store from their isolated apartment complex.
When the workers finally did receive a paycheck, it was for much less than what they were owed based on the hours they had worked, and it did not include overtime pay. The employers had also made excessive deductions for rent, transportation and unexplained “miscellaneous fees,” which lowered the workers’ pay below the federal minimum wage.
In addition, the employers failed to reimburse the workers for their travel and visa expenses, as required by law.
One day, Julia and her co-workers gathered to protest the wage theft to their employers. Some workers threatened to leave. The employers warned the workers that if they left the hotel premises or looked for a second job, they would be deported.
“I was so devastated by our situation,” she said. “I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t because I had no money. I also couldn’t get another job. I came to the United States to work so I could help my family and save to go back to school. I had never been treated so badly before, and I felt like there was nothing I could do about it.”
*Not her real name