OXON HILL, Maryland - Hundreds of Filipinos teachers trooped to the Prince George's County Public Schools (PGCPS) in a desperate bid to hold on to their jobs by carrying letters of appeal, following the decision of the US Department of Labor to bar it from hiring Filipino and other foreign teachers for 2 years.
The DOL reaffirmed a decision last April that concluded the PGCPS willfully violated H-1B visa rules by requiring an estimated 800 Filipino teachers to pay visa and other fees that should have been shouldered by the school system. The PGCPS has already agreed to pay back $4.2 million in back wages to the teachers.
Both the PGCPS and Filipino teachers appealed the DOL's findings, many of the mentors saying they paid the fees voluntarily and were more concerned about keeping their jobs.
A majority of them have been working in the Prince George's public schools for the past 4-5 years, with a smaller number who arrived last year and presumably, were still working off the expenses of resettling in Maryland.
"Under the statute governing the H-1B program," the DOL statement read, "willful wage violations are subject to a debarment period of at least two years. Violations are willful when an employer knew or acted in reckless disregard for whether its actions were impermissible."
"Due to the willful nature of some of the violations, PGCPS also has agreed to pay $100,000 in civil money penalties and to be debarred for two years from filing new petitions, requests for extensions or requests for permanent residency for foreign workers under any employment-based visa program," the statement read further.
Labor Secretary Hilda Solis stressed that "the Labor Department has the responsibility for ensuring that employers who use the H-1B program follow the law and do not place U.S. workers at a disadvantage to H-1B workers."
The Filipino teachers vowed to challenge what they saw a "unjust labor practices", pointing out that they are being penalized for a wrong committed by their school employer.
"They will be performing a series of actions geared towards ultimately attaining what is most precious to them, which is keeping their jobs," declared Maricris Urbano in a statement given to ABS-CBN News.
She said this afternoon's "silent walk-through" at the PGCPS Board of Education office in Upper Marlboro, Maryland was just the beginning. They are blaming the school system for "unfair terminations as they capriciously allowed working visas to expire."
Urbano feared these developments would eventually lead to an exodus of Filipino teachers back to the Philippines.
The Filipino teachers have also hastily organized a town hall meeting with visiting Philippine Congressman Erin Tanada at the Philippine Multicultural Center in Oxon Hill, Maryland this evening. They will be asking for help from the Philippine government.
Vice President Jejomar Binay, in his Independence Day address at the Philippine Embassy here last month, cited the struggle of the Filipino teachers in Prince George's county. They were able to convince PGCPS officials to reverse their decision not to renew work visas for Filipino teachers in "non-critical" subjects; but that victory has been erased by the DOL decision.
If the DOL decision is upheld – it still has to be approved by an administrative law judge – only a handful of Filipino teachers will survive the cut. They belong mostly to the first batch of mentors recruited in the Philippines in 2003-2004 and who've gained legal permanent residency status or the so-called "green card". But they are very few.
Maryland schools sought teachers from the Philippines to fill vacancies and help meet federally-mandated "No Child Left Behind" standards imposed by former President George W. Bush.
The DOL order does not cover about 600 Filipino teachers in Baltimore, Maryland public schools, who were subjected to the same hiring practices that got the Prince George's public school system in hot water. The Baltimore Public School System (BPSS) is trying to avoid a similar fate by reportedly quietly paying back the fees that were illegally collected from their Filipino teachers.
The collection of fees from the Filipino teachers brought about a disparity in wages between foreign and local teachers doing the same job. "The H-1B program allows employers to hire foreign professionals in certain specialty occupations to work temporarily in the U.S," the DOL explained.
"Workers hired under the H-1B program must be paid at least the same wage rates and benefits as those paid to U.S. workers doing the same job in the same area, so that the wages of similarly employed U.S. workers are not adversely affected."