By: Bruce Buchanan, Sebelist Buchanan Law



The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, which was built for the 2002 Winter Olympics and is considered one of the most lavish in Utah, has been sued by four Filipino workers, who allege they were promised training and cultural immersion under J-1 visas, but instead were forced to work up to 60 hours a week doing menial jobs for low pay. The plaintiffs are attempting to make it a class-action lawsuit as it is believed 100 or more employees faced the same treatment.

The J-1 visa program is intended to give foreign workers who can be scholars, teachers, camp counselors and au pairs training and experience in those fields in the United States. The four workers had studied tourism in the Philippines and came to the Grand America Hotel to learn about the hospitality industry in the United States. According to the lawsuit, the workers were promised experience working in five different parts of the hotel but were stuck in only a few.

The workers were promised an opportunity to observe many cultural events, such as Dickens Christmas festival, a winter solstice festival, and a dance festival but were denied the opportunity to attend these cultural events. Additionally, the lawsuit alleges supervisors called them "slow" and "lazy" and threatened them with deportation when they complained about the hotel not following the internship plans.

According to the lawsuit, the workers are being treated as H-2B visa employees and as such, the hotel should have paid for their travel costs and other fees, which exceeded $3000 per employee.

This lawsuit comes after an investigation where U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) found the Grand America Hotel was employing 133 undocumented workers. In 2014, the hotel entered into a non-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Attorney for the District of Utah and ICE/HSI. By reaching this agreement, the hotel avoided criminal prosecution in exchange for forfeiture of $1.95 million (determined by looking at the total number of illegal workers employed over the entire period of the investigation and determining the benefit gained by the hotel as a result of employing undocumented workers during that period). Additionally, the Grand America Hotel agreed to fully cooperate with HSI's investigation, acting to correct its hiring practices, and taking substantial remedial measures estimated to cost $500,000.

There were 330,536 J-1 visa holders in the United States in 2018, including about 4,838 in Utah, according to data from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which oversees the J-1 visa program. Last year, Utah had the second highest number of J-1 visa participants in the Mountain West, behind Denver, which had 10,233 participants.
If you want to know more information on issues related to employer immigration compliance, I recommend you read The I-9 and E-Verify Handbook, a book I co-authored with Greg Siskind, and available at http://www.amazon.com/dp/0997083379.