Foreign student McDonald’s workers describe excessive hours, little privacy
March 11, 2013
Their McDonald’s boss had keys to their bedrooms and they relied on him for transportation. That made it near impossible for the foreign exchange students to avoid double shifts on short notice.
Fernando Acosta and Alicia Marin are two of the foreign guest workers who last week demonstrated at a Harrisburg-area McDonald’s and filed complaints with federal authorities.
Both worked at a McDonald’s on Eisenhower Boulevard and lived in a house on Kelker Steet in Swatara Twp. The McDonald’s franchise is owned by Andy Cheung, who hadn’t responded to requests for comments beginning last Wednesday and continuing through Monday.
Since arriving in the Harrisburg area on Dec. 8, he says he often worked shifts that began at 7 a.m. and ended at 11 p.m. Often, he was scheduled to work until 3, but his manager would inform him he was needed for an additional shift.
Because he depended on his manager to drive him home, it was futile to decline the shift, he said.
“My only choice is working until maybe 11:30 or 12. Then my manager would drive me home,” he said.
According to Acosta, “All the days it was double shift, double shift … My manager told me this was normal. I told him it was wrong.”
But he said complaining did no good. Acosta said he worked until 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve. and New Year’s Eve. He asked to have off on New Year’s Day, but was required to work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., he said.
There were four foreign students at the Kelker Street house, and each had their own bedroom, he said. But none had keys to the house, or to their bedrooms, he said.
The fifth resident of the house was a McDonald’s manager, he said.
His said a manager would often enter his room without knocking at around 5:30 a.m. and shout that it was time to get up for work. On some occasions he had worked late the previous night and wasn’t scheduled that morning.
Alicia Marin, 25, is from Paraguay, where she attends a university and studies industrial design.
Marin also described having to work unscheduled double shifts with no notice, often because someone had called off.
She received $7.25 per hour, and no overtime pay, she said. She and Acosta said they were each charged $85 per week for rent, with the money deducted from their paychecks.
She too relied on the manager to drive her home from work, and thus usually end up working the extra hours. She said she would be given one half-hour break even during a very long shift, and aside from that it was difficult to even get a bathroom break. Often her legs ached, she said during an interview Monday.
One day in mid-February, she said, she worked an eight-hour shift and told her manager she was too tired to work a second shift.
She said the manager told her she wouldn’t have a ride home, and also berated her, telling her she didn’t “like” to work as did other foreign students.
She said she pleaded with the manager, in tears, and eventually was taken home. But after that, the manager made fun of her over her over the incident, she said.
Acosta and Marin spent Monday morning in Harrisburg meeting with the U.S. Department of Labor, which is investigating their complaints, as is the U.S. State Department.
More than a dozen foreign students who were working at Cheung-owned McDonald’s have filed complaints.
They participated in the Summer Work Travel Program, which is administered by the U.S. State Department.
The students typically connect with a “sponsoring organization,” often a nonprofit, that obtains for them a J-1 visa that enables them to work and travel in the United States for four months. The sponsoring organization, or a subcontractor, typically connects them with an employer in the United States.
About 100,000 foreign students come to the United States annually under the program.
Acosta and Marin each said they paid about $3,000 in fees to the sponsor and for travel expenses. The general goal of the work travel program is to enable the students to work full-time for three months, pay down their debt, and spend the fourth month traveling.
But the program has critics who contend it “has become a cheap-labor program under the guise of cultural exchange.”
Acosta said he learned about the program from posters he saw in hallways at his university. He said the poster images showed students having fun and listed jobs at places including McDonald’s. Acosta said he chose a Harrisburg-area McDonald’s because he expected the work would be easy and the location would allow him to visit New York City.
But only once since arriving did he have off for two consecutive days, he said. “We are like a slave,” he said.