MANILA, Philippines?Last month, Brenda received chilling news from her employer. After being recruited and spending two years as a teacher in the United States, she was told that her temporary working visa was not going to be extended after September 2011. She would have to leave the United States to avoid falling out of status. She was also informed that like many of her colleagues, the school would no longer file her green card petition.
Brenda represents hundreds of Filipino teachers who were affected by a decision rendered by the US Department of Labor on April 4, 2011. Most of the teachers who worked for the Prince George?s County Public Schools in Maryland stand to lose their status if they do not explore other legal options for staying in the United States.
Beginning in 2005, the Prince George County?s Public School system recruited more than 1,000 foreign teachers mostly from the Philippines. These teachers were given H1B visas or the temporary nonimmigrant professional worker visa.
To protect US citizens and permanent residents who may be affected by the hiring of foreign nationals, US immigration law imposes certain conditions on US employers. Some of the conditions included in a form called Labor Condition Application (LCA) filed with the US Department of Labor are: (1) that the H1B workers must be paid the prevailing wage as represented in the petition; and, (2) no cost of petitioning the worker shall be assessed on the foreign worker, including filing fees and legal fees.
The US Department of Labor conducted an investigation on the hiring practices of the teachers hired by the Prince George?s County Public Schools. Serious violations were found. According to the findings, it was determined that this school district willfully failed to pay wages as required by law and also failed to maintain documentation as attested to in the labor condition application.
As a result of the violation, the school district was assessed a civil money penalty in the amount of $1.740 million and is required to pay back wages in the amount of $4,393,566.35 to 1,044 mostly Filipino teachers. The letter determination made public by the US Department of Labor stated that the school district has, so far, only paid $171,420 and still owes the teachers $4,222,146.35.
The decision of the US Department of Labor was issued very recently and the school district and any interested party have 15 days to appeal or request for a hearing. If no appeal is filed then the findings shall become a final determination.
Prior to the release of this initial determination by the US Department of Labor, hundreds of H1B teachers were receiving notices from their school?s human resources office. At least two meetings have been conducted to explain to the teachers that they will no longer extend H1B visas for those teaching in ?noncritical? areas.
These informational meetings held by their employer resulted in outrage among the H1B teachers especially among those whose visas are due for extensions. In a letter to the Board of Education, an association of Filipino teachers expressed their sentiments claiming ?unlawful dismissal? despite promises of tenure. According to them, they are being discriminated against in violation of their civil rights.
Carlo B. Parpara, President of the Pilipino Education Network, questioned the Prince George?s County Public Schools: ?Why the outright dismissal of our tenure? We were actively recruited in the Philippines. With a promise of tenured jobs for at least three years, we paid huge amounts of recruitment fees, to the extent of selling real properties, just to secure a permanent job in the US. Despite our excellent performance and satisfactory evaluations, we are being dismissed without legal basis other than the fact that we are foreign teachers.?
Unknown to most of these teachers, the change in policy of their employer may be the result of the investigation that was then being conducted by the US Department of Labor. Their employer seemed to be motivated by the financial constraint of a possible huge penalty that may be imposed on them. Their public release statement was that the dismissal and change in hiring policy was a result of ?budget cuts.?
Aside from the assessment of $4 million in back wages, the Prince George Public School District also faces debarment. They are denied the opportunity to sponsor any more foreign national teachers either for H1B visas or for their permanent resident visas. This debarment will become effective only if the determination of the US Department of Labor becomes final.
The Filipino teachers affected by these findings will receive their back wages as a result of this investigation. What is uncertain at this point is their displacement if their visas are no longer going to be extended. There are those who were lucky enough to have already obtained their green cards. But those who still have pending petitions for permanent visas and those whose H1B visas are expiring may have to explore their options.
Many of them bought homes and were living comfortably with their family before results of the investigation was released. Now, they are facing an uncertain future.
One of their options is to find a new US employer to petition them, pursue a legal claim for unlawful termination or return to the homeland.
Realistically, it may be a difficult option to find employment these days especially if there is little time left to extend their visas. In the same way, pursuing a claim against their employer may be an uphill battle especially with the ?debarment? penalty imposed on their present employer.
Every year, thousands of Filipino workers leave the homeland to seek opportunities abroad. Many need to realize, however, that finding work abroad is oftentimes only the first step in a long journey. That journey will lead to different paths for each individual. Not all will find what they are looking for. Hopefully, however, even with sad stories that we hear about the situation of our kababayans, enough of us will still find success such that those that do will continue to encourage and inspire others who are willing to follow and blaze new paths on their own.
(Tancinco may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 8877177 or 7211963)