Four workers from the Philippines filed a lawsuit against one of the most lavish hotels in Utah for allegedly luring them into a sham internship program that forced them to spend long hours doing menial jobs for low wages.
The lawsuit, which was filed on Tuesday, alleges that Grand America Hotel misused the J-1 visa to take in overseas students and treat them as normal workers, saving thousands of dollars per person.
The four plaintiffs — Jann Descanzo, Veronica Bondoc, Glen Segundino and Marianne Ponio — studied tourism in the Philippines and came to learn about the American hospitality industry.
The hotel’s internship program uses J-1 visas, which are designed to provide training and hands-on experience for students, recent graduates, scholars and others in their chosen fields.
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs paid for their travel and recruitment fees of more than $3,000 each.
But instead of receiving the training and cultural immersion they had expected, they claim that they were forced to clock up to 60 hours a week for low pay, performing less desirable tasks than other employees.
The plaintiffs also claim to have received racist comments from their supervisors, who allegedly called Filipino workers “slow” and “lazy.”
To make matters worse, they were reportedly threatened with deportation after complaining about the hotel’s failure to follow the internship plans.
Nestled in Salt Lake City, Grand America Hotel is the flagship hotel of Grand America Hotels & Resorts, which also owns four Little America Hotels in Western states.
“Our clients allege Defendants have been manipulating the J-1 internship program to bring in vulnerable, low-wage workers from overseas,” said David Seligman, executive director of Towards Justice, a nonprofit law firm representing the plaintiffs. “If true, this conduct is a blatant, greed-driven, and illegal perversion of this country’s immigration laws.”
For what it allegedly asked of the plaintiffs, the hotel should have used the H-2B visa, the correct category for low-wage foreign workers, according to their lawyers.
“We believe that the workers here were victims of, among other things, human trafficking,” said Christopher Lapinig, staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles. “The workers allege that they were defrauded into coming to work at the hotel and that they were subject to threats of deportation if they didn’t comply with work orders. These are hallmarks of human trafficking.”
This is not the first time Grand America has been caught up in allegations of using low-wage migrant workers to conduct its operations. In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
found that it had been employing 133 undocumented workers, and even after the discovery, the hotel reportedly went on to create sham agencies to continue employing similar workers.