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Lawsuits & Litigation

Lawsuit: Attorneys Say Salt Lake City’s Grand America Hotel Ripped Off Foreign Students

— June 27, 2019

The Grand America Hotel allegedly brought in Filipino immigrants and hospitality students on internship-type visas, then forced them to work long hours for little pay.

A coalition of immigration advocates are suing one of Utah’s most luxurious properties, the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City.

According to the Associated Press, Asian Americans Advancing Justice—along with several other organizations—filed the lawsuit on Tuesday. The groups claim that the Grand America Hotel exploited foreign workers, promising intensive training and cultural immersion to applicants in the Philippines.

The program, adds the A.P., was akin to an internship—at least on paper. But the hotel purportedly treated participants like ordinary employees while ducking travel costs and associated fees.

Four of the plaintiffs—Jaan Descanzo, Veronica Bondoc, Glen Segundino and Marianne Ponio—studied tourism in the Philippines. Granted J-1 visas, which are often issued to students, recent graduates and visiting scholars, they’d hoped to learn about America’s hospitality industry.

To get to the United States and the Grand America, the plaintiffs were forced to pay for their own plane tickets and recruitment fees. Separately, they paid more than $3,000 each.

Pictured: the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City. In 2011, the hotel was fined $2 million by the federal government for employing over 120 illegal immigrants. Image via Wikimedia Commons/user:Ricardo630. (CCA-BY-3.0).

“One of the things that our clients allege is that the defendants used the J-1 visa program in order to recruit low wage workers to bring them to the country and to foist the cost of doing so onto the workers themselves,” said Juno Turner, litigation director of Towards Justice, a Colorado-based, non-profit law firm assisting with the case.

Instead of learning the ins and outs of continental hospitality, they were assigned heavy workloads. The plaintiffs were allegedly forced to work upwards of 60 hours each week, receiving little compensation and given the kinds of menial tasks other employees didn’t want to do.

“At the end of the internship, Mr. Segundino had earned little from the menial labor he performed at defendants’ hotel, he had exhausted his savings, and he was in debt to his aunt for the money he had borrowed to pay recruitment fees and travel expenses,” the lawsuit alleges. “Mr. Segundino could not even afford the cost of a plane ticket home.”

The four workers also claim to have faced harassment, with supervisors deriding Filipino employees as “slow” and “lazy.”

When they complained about their chores and tasks not quite aligning with expectations, the plaintiffs were purportedly threatened with deportation.

“These are hallmarks of human trafficking,” said Christopher M. Lapinig during a Tuesday press release.

Lapinig, notes, is an attorney with Asian Americans Advocating Justice.

“Our clients allege Defendants have been manipulating the J-1 internship program to bring in vulnerable, low-wage workers from overseas,” said David Seligman, executive director of Towards Justice. “This conduct is a blatant, greed-driven and illegal perversion of this country’s immigration laws.”

Attorneys working the case also say that the Grand America Hotel has a bad reputation for abusing migrant labor—in 2011, a Department of Homeland Security investigation found the property had hired ten-dozen unauthorized, overseas workers. It was fined $2 million for the transgression, though the sum appears not to have dissuaded further misconduct.

“Stymied in their attempts to use undocumented labor, defendants turned to non-immigrant visa programs, including the J-1 visa internship program, to import cheap foreign labor to operate the hotel,” says the suit.


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