Four citizens of the Philippines who came to work at Salt Lake City’s Grand America Hotel on an internship-like visa program in 2016 claim the hotel treated them poorly and didn’t provide them the learning and cultural experiences they were promised. That’s according to a putative class action lawsuit filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court, District of Utah.
Instead, the lawsuit alleges that the workers were subjected to long work hours doing “less desirable tasks than other employees” for low pay.
It also accuses Grand America supervisors of making racist comments about Filipino workers, calling them “slow” and “lazy.”
The Grand America Hotel did not respond to a request for comment.
The four plaintiffs — Jann Descanzo, Veronica Bondoc, Glen Segundino and Marianne Ponio — studied tourism and hospitality in the Philippines. They came to The Grand America Hotel under the J-1 Visa Visitor Exchange Program expecting to gain experience in the American hospitality industry.
They each paid at least $3,000 to participate in the hotel’s internship program, the lawsuit states.
The purpose of the J-1 visa program is to enable foreign nationals to do things like teach, study, conduct research, or participate in on the job training programs.
“One of the things that our clients allege is that the defendants used the J-1 visa program in order to recruit low wage workers to bring them to the country and to foist the cost of doing so onto the workers themselves,” said Juno Turner, the litigation director of the Denver-based nonprofit law firm Towards Justice.
The plaintiffs’ internship at The Grand America Hotel started in 2016 and finished in 2017, Turner said.
Before they arrived in the U.S., the lawsuit says the hotel promised the plaintiffs cultural experiences and supervised training in five different departments of the hotel But the plaintiffs say the hotel did not keep all those promises.
The lawsuit goes on to accuse the hotel of using the J-1 visa workers as a substitute for ordinary employees.
“At the end of the internship, Mr. Segundino had learned little from the menial labor he performed at defendants’ hotel, he had exhausted his savings, and he was in debt to his aunt for the money he had borrowed to pay recruitment fees and travel expenses,” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Segundino could not even afford the cost of a plane ticket home.”
When the Filipino workers complained about the hotel’s failure to provide them with the experiences they were promised, Turner said the hotel retailated. The workers received deportation threats, according to the lawsuit.
“These are hallmarks of human trafficking,” said Christopher M. Lapinig in a Tuesday press release. He’s an attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, a nonprofit legal aid and civil rights organization which is also representing the plaintiffs.
A multi-year investigation by the U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations found that The Grand America Hotel had unlawfully employed 133 workers who were undocumented immigrants. In 2014, Grand America Hotels and Resorts, agreed to pay a $1.95 million penalty for unlawful conduct.
Grand America Hotels and Resorts owns The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City and other properties in Wyoming, Arizona, California and Idaho.
There were 330,536 J-1 visa holders in the US in 2018, including about 4,838 in Utah, according to data from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs which oversees the J-1 visa program. Last year, Utah had the second highest number of J-1 visa participants in the Mountain West, behind Denver which had 10,233 participants.