Why PG County Schools’ Wage Violations May Throw Its H-1B Teachers Out of the US

July 17, 2011

In the wake of Maryland’s Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) settlement agreement involving H-1B wage violations, questions have been raised about the unfair affect this is having on the victims, the teachers who will be forced to leave their jobs and the United States once their H-1B time runs out.

As part of the settlement agreement, PG County schools are barred from filing H-1B and other employment-based petitions for two years, including extensions of existing H-1B workers. Once their H-1B time with PGCPS expires, these teachers will be out of a job and have to leave the United States unless they find another employer or other visa status.

It’s true. It’s not fair. The reason lies in the purpose of the visa regulations. H-1B and associated employment-based immigrant visa regulations, which include those of the Department of Labor and USCIS, were not created for the benefit of the foreign workers. Rather, the regulations were created for U.S. employers. These regulations enable U.S. employers to fill jobs that would otherwise go unfilled because insufficient numbers of qualified American workers (or other authorized workers) exist.

To prevent employers from using these regulations to undercut American workers, the regulations impose numerous obligations on employers. For H-1Bs, for example, the regulations set minimum wage requirements for each job based on the profession and location (known as the prevailing wage) and prohibiting benching (the worker must be paid the required wage even if the employer has no project or work to be done).  By imposing these obligations, the employer is discouraged from seeking foreign workers who it might be able to pay less for doing the job. These obligations also protect the foreign worker from exploitation, but is not their only purpose.

The process of obtaining an H-1B and associated green card has become sufficiently complicated, expensive and lengthy that it also serves as a de facto discouragement against hiring foreign workers.

With this in mind, the regulations impose penalties designed to punish the employer, such as fines and being barred from participating in the visa programs. They do not focus on remedies for the foreign worker. In the case of the PG County teachers, they are to be reimbursed the money they paid, but this order is less about refunding the teachers their wrongfully paid sums, and more about preventing the employer from benefitting from its violations, which it would if it were allowed to retain the money paid by the teachers.

As to the victimized teachers, the system is not concerned with their re-employment once their H-1B with the school expires. The H-1B visa is market driven, so the system lets the market decide their fate. Once their H-1B with PG County expires, the teachers can stay in the United States if they can find another employer or obtain some other visa status (e.g. student visa, marriage visa, etc.). From the system’s perspective, if the teacher does not find another H-1B employer, for example, then that must mean sufficient numbers of American workers exist, so a foreign worker is not needed to fill the job and must return home.

To prevent this unfair outcome, a change in the focus of immigration policy must happen. When the policy changes, the regulations will follow. If U.S. immigration policy concerns you, you can advocate for change by contacting Congress or volunteering to help immigration advocacy organizations, such as the American Immigration Council.

If your employer required you to pay for your H-1B fees or you have been benched or underpaid, you may have remedies available and should seek advice from a competent atttorney.

For more information about legal services we provide to H-1B employees with wage claims, please see our blog we co-author with Attorney Michael Brown here.


MD County’s Public Schools Barred from H-1B program and Fined for Wage Violations

July 15, 2011

In a settlement agreement signed this month in connection with H-1B wage violations, Maryland’s Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) system must reimburse more than 1000 teachers $4.2 million in H-1B application fees and pay a $100,000 fine. The Department of Labor and USCIS have also barred the school system from filing applications for work visas for two years.

In April, the Department of Labor investigated PGCPS’ practice of requiring foreign teachers to pay their H-1B applications fees and found it to be a willful violation of the H-1B regulations prompting the fine and debarment. The investigation covered applications filed between May 2005 and January 2011, which amounts to 1044 teachers who must be reimbursed a total of $4,224,146.

Initially PGCPS was assessed $1,740,000 in civil penalties due to the violations, but in the settlement agreement this month that amount was reduced to $100,000 on the condition it not file any H-1B or green card applications for the next two years. If it fails to adhere to the condition, PGCPS will be required to pay the higher penalty.

The debarment does not affect active H-1B visas, but when these H-1B periods expire, the school system will not be able to file for extensions, putting these teachers out of work.

DOL and USCIS must be encouraged to continue holding H-1B program violators accountable. If you know of any DOL or USCIS actions against H-1B violators, let us know.

For more information about H-1B wage violations, benching, underpayment, and the rights of H-1B employees, please visit our blog H-1B Legal Rights, which we co-author with Employee Rights Attorney Michael Brown of Peterson, Berk & Cross.


Feds Cracking Down with Criminal Convictions against Employers for H-1B and Work Visa Fraud

May 19, 2011

H-1B and other employers who run work visa scams have more to fear than just the Department of Labor for their violations. These employers increasingly are facing criminal convictions and imprisonment on charges typically used against organized crime and trafficking rings, such as the Mafia.

In the past several months, federal prosecutors have publicized several cases against employers who were convicted under trafficking and criminal RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) laws for procuring and exploiting foreign workers through visa fraud.

Of note, in March 2011, federal prosecutors in New Jersey reported that the owner of a tech staffing company was sentenced to six months in prison, fined $50,000 and ordered to forfeit an additional $296,921.82 for money laundering in connection with trafficking in immigration documents used to obtain H-1B visas and green cards for Indian workers. Six immigrant employees who paid the employer for the fake visas pleaded guilty and were placed on supervised probation, according to the Department of Justice (DOJ) press release.

The owner, Nilesh Dasondi, pleaded guilty to submitting employment-based visa applications for unqualified and ineligible foreign workers for jobs that did not exist at his company, formerly  Cygate Software & Consulting, now Sterling System LLC. When the workers arrived in the United States, the employer told them to go find jobs elsewhere. The employer then ran fake payrolls for these employees to make it look like they were working for the company. As part of the scam, the employees had to reimburse the employee for this payroll and related expenses, DOJ said.

In April, two other staffing company owners  in Iowa were convicted of H-1B visa fraud and sentenced to more than three years in prison and ordered to forfeit more than $ 1 million in proceeds. Fazal Mehmood and Viheet Maheshwari, who ran Worldwide Software Services and Sana Systems, plead guilty to applying for H-1B visas for foreign workers that contained false statements about their jobs and work locations typical of body shop scams, according to DOJ. For example, they told the government that employees would be working as programmers and analysts, but those jobs did not exist.

In an unrelated case, eight co-workers of  several connected Missouri and Kansas staffing companies that provided labor to the service and construction industries nationwide were similarly convicted of human trafficking and RICO charges for securing visas for illegal workers, DOJ said. The employers exploited the workers by threatening deportation if they complained about the working conditions that amounted to indentured servitude. They were forced to live in crowded apartments for which they were charged exorbitant rents, they worked but were not paid for overtime, and numerous “fees” were deducted from their paychecks resulting in negative earnings ensuring their “debt” to the employer could never be paid.

The Department of State has launched a public education campaign to combat exploitation and trafficking of foreign workers. More information on this resource is available in our blog article Handy Government Guide to Employee Rights; Download and Keep It With You.

If you believe the visa application your employer submitted for your visa may have contained false statements, you should contact an attorney as soon as possible.

For more information about legal services for H-1B employees who suspect they have been victims of employer fraud, please visit our co-authored H-1B Legal Rights blog, blog page here.


E-Verify Explained

May 9, 2009

The Migration Policy Institute has posted an informative explanation of the controversial E-Verify program and its proposed alternatives.

E-Verify is a U.S. government database that employers can use to verify the employment eligibility of prospective hires. Both the U.S. government and some states are attempting to make use of this database mandatory against the protests of various immigration, business and other advocacy groups.

One of the key problems with this database is its unacceptable error rate, which results in citizens and non-citizens alike receiving non-confirmation notices. A non-confirmation means the prospective employee effectively cannot start work until he clears his name.

The following are highlights of the problems with the database extracted from the Migration Policy Institute’s article on the issue:

Error Rate

“False nonconfirmations, the most serious problem, affect both legally resident workers and employers. Where tentative nonconfirmations are successfully appealed, some workers report having to make multiple trips to SSA field offices or numerous calls to DHS to correct the error.

The persistence of database errors means that protecting workers against false final nonconfirmations requires employers to endure relatively long periods of uncertainty about employees’ status to ensure workers an adequate opportunity to appeal a [nonconfirmation]….

As noted earlier, foreign-born workers, particularly naturalized citizens, have the highest database error rates. Since Westat, GAO, and other independent analysts have found that employers subject native and immigrant workers to different degrees of scrutiny, human error and bias can reinforce the problem. …”

 Identity Theft

 “A second unintended consequence of E-Verify is identity theft, which affected 8.4 million Americans in 2007 at a cost to these victims of $50 billion according to the US Trade Commission.

By linking employment more closely to valid Social Security numbers (SSNs) and associated data (e.g., name and state of birth), E-Verify increases the value of this information, the key to stealing an individual’s identity.”

Excessive Cost to Tax Payer

“Third, although USCIS bears the financial costs of administering E-Verify, SSA manages 90 percent of the system’s queries, and SSA field offices must resolve erroneous nonconfirmations for US citizens.

SSA administrators have testified before Congress that these tasks threaten the agency’s ability to complete its core mission of service to disabled and retired Americans. These administrators have estimated that a mandatory E-Verify program would cost the agency about $281 million for fiscal year (FY) 2009 through FY 2013.

SSA officials and advocates for the agency warn that expanding E-Verify would threaten the agency’s ability to process the impending wave of baby boomer retirees, which is expected to add a million new cases to the agency’s workload each year for the next decade.”


Lawsuit Seeks to Void Controverisal New Federal Contractor E-Verify Law

December 27, 2008

The latest government attempt to impose the use of E-Verify on employers is being challenged in court. This time it is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business and human resources groups attacking the legality of new regulations that force federal government contractors to use E-Verify for its employees.

The regulations, which go into effect Jan. 15, 2009, require federal contractors with projects exceeding $100,000 lasting 120 days or more and for sub-contractors with projects exceeding $3,000 to use E-Verify to confirm its employees’ eligibility to work. It also requires contractors to reconfirm the employment authorization of existing employees hired after Nov. 6, 1986 who work on government contracts.

The Chamber says the government is using an executive order to get around normal law-making processes.

“This massive expansion of E-Verify is not only bad policy, it’s unlawful,” said Robin Conrad, executive vice president of the National Chamber Litigation Center (NCLC), the Chamber’s public policy law firm. “The Administration can’t use an Executive Order to circumvent federal immigration and procurement laws. Federal law explicitly prohibits the secretary of Homeland Security from making E-Verify mandatory or from using it to re-authorize the existing workforce.”

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the new regulations illegal and void.

Employer groups have criticized E-Verify as too costly and imperfect to require use by federal contractors and subcontractors.

The case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, is Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, et al. v. Chertoff, et al.

For more information on the controversial E-Verify program, please see our other article here.


FAQs: I Was Underpaid As An H-1B, But Am Now Outside the U.S.; Can I Still Sue?

October 17, 2008

If you were underpaid as an H-1B, and are now outside the U.S., below are some frequently asked questions and answers.

 —–

 #1: Can I bring a legal claim in the U.S. against my former employer, when I no longer live in the U.S.?

Probably yes.  There are cases in several areas of U.S. law where non-citizens are allowed to pursue legal action against a U.S. citizen or U.S. entity (e.g. their former U.S. employer).  As a non-citizen, you probably have “standing” to bring a U.S. legal claim when that claim is based on events that occurred while you were working in H-1B status.

#2: It has been several years since I left my underpaying H-1B employer and left the U.S.- is it too late to file a legal claim?  What are the deadlines?

If your wages were underpaid sometime within the last four (4) years, you still have time to consider taking legal action against your former employer.

There are several deadlines that may apply to your situation, ranging from one (1) to four (4) years or possibly longer.

The Department of Labor (DOL) has a one (1)- year deadline for filing a complaint for being paid under the prevailing wage.

Even when the DOL deadline has passed, there are other laws that may apply to your situation that have longer deadlines.  For example, State wage laws often have two (2)- year or three (3)- year deadlines.  Some State and Federal fraud laws have longer deadlines-one important federal fraud law that applies to underpaid H-1B wages has a deadline of four (4) years.  Some applicable laws’ deadlines may be even longer.

#3: What makes a legal claim “good” or worth pursuing?

These are the most important factors that are likely to make a legal claim “good:” 

* Your deadline hasn’t passed. 

That is, at least some of your underpaid wages occurred within the last four (4) years. 

* The amount of your underpaid wages is significant, i.e. tens of thousands of U.S. dollars or more.

If you were only underpaid a few weeks’ wages, then a legal action is probably not worthwhile for you to pursue.

If you lost a significant amount of wages, tens of thousands of dollars or more, then there is more you would stand to gain from a legal action.

Also, the greater the amount of lost wages, the more likely it is that an attorney would represent you on a contingency basis instead of requiring fees in advance.  (Under a contingency arrangement, you do not have to pay your attorney out-of-pocket legal fees. Fees are only paid by the employer if you obtain a settlement or legal award. For more information on this subject, please see Question #7 below). 

* You have LCA and paystub documentation proving you were underpaid. 

It will help your legal claim a great deal if you have copies of: (1) your Labor Certification Application (LCA) or other documents that prove what your prevailing wage was; and (2) paystubs or other documents that prove your H-1B employer paid you less than the prevailing wage. 

If you do not have these documents, you can still pursue your claim. Having these documents, however, makes a claim easier to prove and pursue. 

#4 Will I have to file a legal complaint for my matter, or is it possible I can reach an agreement (settlement) with the employer without having to pursue a lawsuit? 

Often, an H-1B worker will be able to reach a settlement with the employer without having to file a legal complaint.  It is often in the employer’s best interests to reach a settlement rather than face the costs and risks of litigation.  Employers often stand to lose a lot of money- if they lose a judgment, they may have to pay for your unpaid wages, pay additional penalty monies, and pay their own attorney fees and legal expenses.  Thus, it is often in the employer’s best financial interest to reach a reasonable settlement with its former H-1B worker, before a legal complaint is filed. 

If a legal complaint is filed, it is still possible that a settlement can be reached in the earlier stages of litigation, before the parties have spent a significant amount of money on litigation. 

#5 If I pursued my unpaid wages from my former H-1B employer, would I have to travel to the U.S.? 

Chances are you would not have to travel to the U.S.  As mentioned above, there is a good chance you can reach a settlement with your employer before filing a legal complaint.  If a legal complaint is not filed, there is no requirement that you travel. 

If you cannot reach a settlement with the employer and you decide to file a legal complaint, then after the complaint is filed you could be required to travel to the U.S.  As part of litigation, there are two potential occasions you may have to travel: You could be required to attend a deposition in the U.S., and you could be required to testify at trial.  However, many cases in litigation are resolved before these occasions (a deposition or a trial) arise.  In addition, if a deposition is necessary, it is possible the court will permit a video deposition so that you do not need to travel to the United States. 

The bottom line is this: (1) the chances are good you could settle your unpaid wage matter without having to travel to the U.S.; (2) if you don’t settle your matter before litigation, you have a choice of filing a complaint (and possibly commit yourself to traveling) or not filing a complaint; and (3) if you file a complaint, your legal case may still be resolved without you having to travel to the U.S. 

#6 If I have to travel to the United States for litigation, do I need a visa? 

What if you do wind up filing a legal complaint and you do reach the point you are required to travel to the U.S. and attend a deposition or trial?  Would you be legally-allowed to travel to the U.S.? 

Visa regulations specifically allow foreign nationals to come to the United States on a tourist/business visa for litigation purposes. Therefore, if you are eligible for the Visa Waiver Program, you may enter the United States under that program and stay up to 3 months. Otherwise, you will need to obtain a regular tourist visa from the U.S. consulate in your country if you do not already have one. 

If you are subject to a bar to re-entry because you significantly overstayed your last visa, engaged in unauthorized work, or are otherwise inadmissible to the United States, you may qualify for a non-immigrant visa waiver of inadmissibility. If these circumstances apply to you, you should consult with an attorney to discuss your options. 

#7 If I hire an attorney to help pursue my unpaid wages from my former H-1B employer, how much would that cost me? 

If you retained an attorney for your matter (the attorney must be someone licensed in the U.S.), there are several types of fee arrangements, some of which don’t require you to pay anything unless you win. 

Some U.S. attorneys will represent H-1B workers with unpaid wages on a “contingency” basis. 

If the attorney will work on contingency, that means you do not have to pay the attorney anything out of your pocket.  The attorney is only paid if you settle or win your case.  When you win your case, the H-1B employer will pay a percentage of your settlement or judgment (traditionally 33 1/3%) to your attorney for legal fees. 

There are other types of legal fee arrangements where you do have to pay out of pocket legal fees.  For example, many attorneys charge hourly legal fees, usually ranging between $150/hour to $300/hour (rates may be higher or lower depending on the locale and other factors).  This hourly type of fee arrangement will require that you pay out-of-pocket money to your attorney, and you will get a regular bill from the attorney.   

An hourly fee arrangement is ethical and common, and it could turn out to be a better financial deal for you in the long run than a contingency arrangement.  However, the disadvantage of hourly fees is that these hours can add up quickly and become very expensive for you.  In a short time (a matter of a few weeks or months), you could be charged thousands of dollars in hourly fees.  If you pay hourly fees for long-term litigation, you could easily incur tens of thousands of dollars in hourly fees. 

If you retain an attorney on an hourly basis, you should ask that attorney for a detailed budget and estimates of what you can expect to pay throughout the litigation process. 

As you can see, one important issue to consider when you hire an attorney is whether that attorney will have a contingency fee arrangement or a different arrangement that requires you to pay out-of-pocket legal fees (like hourly billing). 

Another important factor to consider when hiring an attorney is whether that attorney is experienced in dealing with H-1B wage issues, immigration issues, and employment disputes and litigation. 

There is a blog post here (Important Questions to Ask When Hiring an Attorney), which details many important factors to consider when retaining an attorney. 

In addition, for more information about issues to consider if you are an H-1B worker and are not being paid your prevailing wage, please visit this article: Employee Tip: If You’re an H-1B Worker Beign Underpaid Wages, Consider These Things.

This post was jointly authored by Employee Rights Attorney Michael Brown of the law firm of Peterson, Berk & Cross, and Immigration Attorney Vonda K. Vandaveer of the law firm V.K. Vandaveer, P.L.L.C.  Attorney Brown authors the blog Employee Rights WI. For more information about H-1B rights, please see our other blog H-1B Legal Rights at www.h1blegalrights.com.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this article is NOT legal advice, nor does it establish an attorney-client relationship between you and the attorneys or law firms above. Legal advice often varies between situations. If you want legal advice for your specific circumstances, you must consult with an attorney.


9th Circuit Upholds AZ Employer Sanctions Law

September 21, 2008

In a blow to Arizona employers, the 9th Circuit upheld the controversial Legal Arizona Workers Act, which imposes state sanctions on employers who hire unauthorized workers and requires all employers to participate in the much-maligned E-Verify program.  

The law suspends or revokes the business licenses of employers caught knowingly hiring undocumented employees.

The plaintiffs argued the law unconstitutionally usurps the federal government’s power to regulate immigration. The three-judge panel rejected all of the arguments set forth by the plaintiffs, who included more than a dozen business and Hispanic groups.

Despite upholding the law, the court left the door open for future challenges based on how the act is eventually enforced by the state.

We uphold the statute in all respects against this facial challenge, but we must observe that it is brought against a blank factual background of enforcement and outside the context of any particular case. If and when the statute is enforced, and the factual background is developed, other challenges to the Act as applied in any particular instance or manner will not be controlled by our decision.

The plaintiff’s may seek an en banc review, in which the entire 9th Circuit would examine the case and issue a ruling. The case may also be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

As enforcement against unauthorized employment is increasing at the national as well as the state level, employers will want to be sure they are I-9 compliant.  

The court’s opinion is available here.

Information about Arizona’s Legal Workers Act and worksite enforcement issues is available here.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.