Jamaican students who arrived in the United States on J-1 exchange visitor visas to work at a Holiday Inn Express and a Hampton Inn have sued their hosts in Oklahoma federal court.
They are claiming to be survivors of human trafficking who shelled out high recruitment fees, got paid less than promised and were threatened with physical harm if they tried to quit. The proposed class action is led by named plaintiffs Dorret Francis, Anthony Kennedy and Christine Pearce.
The documents, which were filed on Friday, claim that Walter Schumacher and Carolyn Schumacher used a J-1 sponsor organization - Apex USA Incorporated - which they controlled and operated, to recruit staff for the hospitality businesses that they also owned and operated in Clinton, Oklahoma. The businesses included the Holiday Inn Express, the Hampton Inn, a steakhouse and an indoor water park.
The complaint said the defendants' overseas recruiting agents defrauded the plaintiffs and other individuals throughout the recruitment process, inducing them to pay substantial fees for recruitment, immigration processing and travel with promises of full-time, good-paying jobs and suitable housing.
However, it said after the individuals arrived in Oklahoma, the defendants caused them to believe that if they did not work exclusively for them, they would suffer abuse of the legal process and serious financial and reputational harm. The suit said when the Jamaicans thought about leaving, they realized they could not return home because they had incurred substantial debts to pay for the Apex recruitment fees and other expenses.
The suit said the student workers were also subjected to threats of physical harm from Walter Schumacher, who allegedly told them he carried a firearm in his car and was a police sheriff with close ties to law enforcement authorities in Clinton.
Mr. Schumacher and other supervisors also reportedly threatened the students with deportation when they complained about their wages and working conditions.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, whose lawyers are representing the Jamaican students, revealed that the workers took action after learning of a similar lawsuit filed in July 2017 against most of the same defendants on behalf of employees recruited from the Philippines for the guest worker program.
They allegedly worked as housekeepers at Holiday Inn Express or the Hampton Inn Clinton at a rate of pay between $4 and $4.25 for each room cleaned.
According to the suit, the job was time-consuming, so only a small number of rooms could be cleaned each day.
It also said the piece rate did not satisfy the hotels' contractual promises or minimum wage requirements.
The suit alleges violations of the Federal Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. It seeks actual damages, including restitution, compensatory damages and punitive damages.
Representatives for the Schumachers did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday.