A student from Argentina said he was “exploited” by a work-study program at a McDonald’s franchise in Pennsylvania.
Jorge Rios, 27, came to the United States in December 2012. As part of a J-1 summer work travel program with a student work visa from the U.S. State Department, Rios said he was not paid overtime and had to be on call at all times of the day as an employee at a McDonald’s near Harrisburg, Pa.
He and about 17 other foreign students say they paid around $3,000 to $4,000 for visa costs, plane tickets and other expenses.
“We have been exploited by McDonald’s because we have been working for McDonald’s but we did not receive overtime or the fact that we have been put to be on-call all day had to do with the way McDonald’s designed our schedules,” he said.
The State Department does not charge fees for people to participate in the summer work travel program, which requires jobs to be seasonal or temporary. Instead, private companies charge fees to help bring students to the U.S. as in this case.
Rios, a student at the National University of Misiones, or the Universidad Nacional de Misiones, in Posadas, Argentina, came to the U.S. during his summer in the Southern Hemisphere.
Rios complained to the State Department about the private “host” company that brought him to the U.S. A spokeswoman for the State Department said they are “investigating the situation,” adding that they conduct site visits to ensure the health and safety of participants. Last summer, the State Department conducted 650 site visits in 31 states.
In the U.S. last summer, there were 73,808 people who participated in the summer work travel program, which has the goal of providing an American cultural experience to foreign students.
During the winter months, there were 8,215 program participants like Rios. In this cycle, the State Department conducted 226 site visits in 24 states so far.
Rios started a petition in partnership with the National Guestworker Alliance, asking Don Thompson, McDonald’s Corporation’s president and CEO, for overtime pay and to sign an agreement with the alliance to guarantee “basic labor standards” for guest workers like him.
Rios and 14 other visiting workers have staged protests at McDonald’s in Pennsylvania and plan to stage a protest in New York City this week. The scheduled hours for the workers varied widely from week to week, from a few hours to 45 or 60 hours a week without overtime, they said.
“We expected to have 40 hours of work a week, but we were given as little as four hours a week at the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour,” Rios said in the petition. “The employer knew we were desperate for more hours, and he kept us on call to come in with 30 minutes’ notice all day and night. I didn’t even have time to visit the public library.”
A spokesman for McDonald’s Corporation provided this statement: “We take the well-being of the employees working in McDonald’s restaurants seriously. We are working closely with the franchisee to investigate the claims surrounding his program.”
The franchise owner did not return a request for comment.
Though a host program is expected to provide housing at fair market pricing, Rios said he and the other foreign workers paid $300 a month to the owner of the McDonald’s franchise to live in child-size bunk beds in a basement apartment he owned.
“As many as eight of us lived in a single basement. We slept on bunk beds made for children that shook and squeaked. We had no privacy whatsoever,” he said.
Geovisions, the private company that runs the program in which Rios participated, provided a statement that states that it is a designated sponsor for the J-1 Work and Travel Program.
“The health, safety and welfare of our students is of prime concern to us, and our goal is to respond to students’ concerns and issues in a prompt and helpful manner to ensure that their program is meaningful and successful,” the statement reads. “Students come on our program to learn about the United States, improve their English, and they are allowed to work in order to offset some of their program and travel costs. In the current situation with some students protesting against the McDonald’s franchise in the Harrisburg, PA area, we are collecting data, talking with people involved and investigating all aspects of this case.”