By Julia Cass
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 17, 2006
NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 16 -- Latin Americans hired as legal "guest workers" by a major hotel group filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday contending that they were recruited with false promises of good earnings and instead have been left with thousands of dollars in debt for their visas, recruitment fees and journeys here.
They are among the thousands of legal and illegal immigrants who came after Hurricane Katrina, in some cases replacing African Americans displaced by the storm.
The 82 guest workers from Bolivia, Peru and the Dominican Republic paid between $3,500 and $5,000 to recruiting firms working on behalf of Decatur Hotels LLC, which owns 15 hotels in the historic areas of New Orleans, to work in maintenance, housekeeping and other service departments.
They came here under the federal H-2B visa program, in which employers must stipulate that they cannot find U.S. workers to fill the jobs. The guest workers contend that Decatur Hotels has not provided them with the promised 40 hours of work per week.
"Under immigration law, they are bound to their employer and cannot legally work for anybody else," said Mary Bauer, attorney for the Immigrant Justice Project of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which brought the suit with the Washington, D.C.-based National Immigration Law Center and New Orleans civil rights lawyer Tracie L. Washington. "Their debt makes them desperate to work -- but Decatur doesn't give them enough hours. And if they switch jobs, they're breaking the law. They are captive workers in a situation of virtual debt peonage."
In a copy of an H-2B application form filed by a representative of Decatur with the U.S. Labor Department, the company states that it tried unsuccessfully to find U.S. workers through newspaper ads and Internet searches, that local students could not work sufficient hours and that no evacuees applied.
The lawsuit contends that U.S. workers were available and that the company's goal in hiring foreigners was to drive down wages. "I don't think they looked that hard," Washington said.
F. Patrick Quinn III, Decatur's co-founder and president, said in a statement that after the hurricane displaced much of the local workforce, the company contracted with an international recruitment company. He said the company last week offered to meet with "the small group of workers who were expressing concerns" but that the offer was refused. It is not clear how many foreign workers Decatur employs; the lawsuit estimates at least 300.
At a news conference in front of the federal courthouse, about 20 workers held signs that said "Dignidad," and several choked up as they described their personal ordeals. In their home countries, they were government workers, secretaries, mechanics, carpenters, university students. They did the math and figured they would come out ahead if they were paid the $6.02 to $7.79 an hour for the 40-hour week specified in their nine-month contracts. They said they also were told they could expect a substantial amount of overtime at a higher rate.
"I think I am coming here for an opportunity, but instead I am having the most worst living nightmare," said Luis Lopez, 34, a room service worker at the Decatur group's Astor Crowne Plaza at the edge of the French Quarter. In the Dominican Republic, he worked at an architecture firm. Salaries there are low, he said, and he signed up with a recruiting firm in Santo Domingo seeking workers for Decatur after hearing about the opportunity from a friend. He borrowed money from a bank and family members to pay for the visa, recruitment fees and travel.
Lopez arrived in April and at first worked 40-hour weeks. Then the hours slacked off, and he has not worked for several weeks. His last two-week paycheck was for $18, he said. He lives with three other workers in a room in a Decatur-owned hotel for guest workers, for which each pays $50 a week. "I would not have come if I had known the truth," he said.
The suit seeks payment of double the workers' visa, travel and recruitment expenses as reimbursement and penalty.