SIOUX CITY, Iowa (KCAU) — A trial date has been set for a lawsuit involving a group of international students against Western Iowa Tech Community College (WITCC) and other organizations.
Eight Brazilian exchange students alleged that WITCC and partnered companies conspired to make them work to pay for tuition and room and board fees that were originally promised to them as free.
A trial has been set for January 8, 2024.
The students were recruited by WITCC through their J-1 Visa Program. Documents claim that the students believed that they were going to complete internships related to their field of study and work no more than 32 hours each week. The students claim that the jobs they were assigned at Tur-Pak and Royal Canin had no educational value and were unrelated to their fields of study. They also said they were expected to work more than 32 hours, which was the number of hours they were told they would work. The Defendant companies both paid $15 per hour, but the students only received $7.25 with the rest of their earnings being given to WITCC and J&L Staffing.
The students also claimed they were segregated from the general student population and only took classes with other Brazilians and Chileans that were a part of the J-1 Visa Program. An anonymous complaint was made that resulted in the U.S. State Department investigating the program and interviewing several of the students.
Following the investigation, the students lost their jobs at Royal Canin and Tur-Pak. The lawsuit alleged that jobless students were told by WITCC to utilize the local food bank since they could not pay for food. The J-1 Visa students were asked to vacate student housing in February and March 2020 after the program was ended in January of the same year.
One student claimed that she was told by Defendant Rosana Salgado Burright that she would receive free housing and food as well as scholarships to cover her tuition. Upon arrival at the school, WITCC was providing the J-1 Visa students with $50 Wal-Mart gift cards for groceries, but after they started working, the students stopped receiving them.
Documents stated that the students, primarily enrolled in the Culinary Arts and Robotics and Automation programs, were given jobs at Royal Canin and Tur-Pak and paid $7.25 per hour.
Another student claimed that he was told he would be working at Royal Canin for 36 hours a week as a robotics and automation technician, and he would not have to pay any fees to WITCC while housing and food would be provided. The student stated that his job at Royal Canin was unrelated to Robotics and Automation, and he would carry 50 lb. bags containing the ingredients to make pet food. The student claims that they would often work more than 36 hours, sometimes up to 52 hours per week.
A claim came from another student who was unable to work at either Royal Canin or Tur-Pak due to delays with her social security card. She, instead, worked on campus. She alleged was paid $7.25 for her work on campus, but discovered WITCC was deducting money from her paycheck and was told they were receiving money for her work on campus to cover fees for the program. She later became sick and lost her job on campus. Later, the student was given a job as a security officer on campus. The student asked Defendant Juline Albert if she could get a job at Wal-Mart to help cover costs from when she was sick and unemployed. After being told she could work at Wal-Mart, she reported she was told she needed to give portions of her paycheck from Wal-Mart to WITCC to cover costs.
Another student who was working at Royal Canin as an operator has made claims that they were working over 54 hours each week, and after losing their job after the anonymous complaint was made to the State Department, had to rely on local food pantries and church donations for food. He later got a job at Firehouse Subs but was told he had to quit when WITCC found out he was working outside of the program.
Claims from another student stated that they worked at Tur-Pak due to a lack of positions at Royal Canin. The claims also stated that, on top of taxes, Tur-Pak deducted transportation costs from their $7.25 per hour pay. The student later went to work at Royal Canin where they were also paid $7.25 per hour. After being told he could no longer work there, he found work at Hy-Vee but was told he could not work outside of the WITCC J-1 Visa Program.
One student who was interested in the Robotics and Automation field was also given a job at Royal Canin and was disappointed when the job had nothing to do with his field of study. He claimed he regularly worked anywhere from 36 to 56 hour weeks, often working 12 days in a row and double shifts on the weekends. They received $7.25 for their work.
Another student that was told they would only be working 30 hours per week at Royal Canin claims that they were working 50 to 60 hours per week for $7.25 per hour.
One student claimed that the Defendants told them that they were taking money he had earned as reimbursement for his plane ticket and that he had to cover rent. The student worked 5 to 6 days a week and was told that if he did not work he would be removed from the program. He also claims that he had broken a tooth while working but did not go to the dentists out of fear of missing work and being deported.
Another student said that they were put to work for 12-hour shifts six days a week and would work in very cold environments without being given proper attire to work in a freezer.
The Defendants in the case are Western Iowa Tech Community College, J&L Staffing and Recruiting, Inc., Royal Canin USA, Tur-Pak Foods, Inc., Juline Albert, Nancy Albrecht, Rosana Salgado Burright, Terry Murrell, Terry Yi, James Zuercher, and Lilly Castro.
A lawsuit for a second group of students is planned to be scheduled at a later date.