Pinoy teachers win suit in Louisiana

By Rodney J. Jaleco, ABS-CBN North America News Bureau

Posted at Apr 17 2010 10:08 AM | Updated as of Apr 18 2010 12:15 AM

WASHINGTON D.C. - A Louisiana administrative judge has ordered a California-based Fil-Am recruitment agency to refund at least $1.8 million, representing part of fees it illegally collected from 350 Filipino teachers hired by the state’s public schools.

Administrative Judge Shelley Dick said Universal Placement International (UPI) violated at least 5 Louisiana labor statutes, among them the collection of “marketing fees”; collection of placement fees “prior to actual commencement of work”; collection of fees from teachers who never got to work with the schools; compelling them to pay 10% of their gross monthly income for 2 years; and failing to adjust employment service fees according to the teachers’ actual gross earnings.

It also found UPI liable for operating without a license in Louisiana.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) based in Washington DC provided the lawyers to represent the Filipinos teachers in Louisiana. They hailed the decision as a victory for the Filipino teachers.

“What makes these allegations especially heinous is that the victims are good teachers, that school districts and tax dollars are involved, and that all this is taking place in 21st century America,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in explaining their decision to take the cudgels for the Filipino mentors.

However, the administrative court’s decision fell short of the teachers’ petition to nullify their contract with UPI.

Judge Dick pointed out that the Louisiana Private Employment Service Law (LPES) “does not grant the power to declare the contracts null and void”. The teachers, she argued, can resort to the district courts to have the contracts nullified.

She ordered UPI to refund the teachers all unauthorized fees collected from them plus $7,500 in litigation expenses and a $500 fine for operating without a license in the state.

The teachers complained that they paid as much $15,000 each in various “fees” even before they could start working in Louisiana schools. However, in the court filings, it was estimated each teacher paid $5,000 in “marketing fees”.

The Louisiana public school system already paid UPI, through its president Lourdes “Lulu” Navarro, thousands of dollars for recruiting the Filipino teachers. The mentors also alleged they were made to pay the cost of getting H-1B visas.

“The evidence established that UPI and its Philippines affiliate, PARS also charged the teachers various fees associated with obtaining visas and other documents necessary to work legally in the United States.

“Scrutiny of these fees is not within the regulatory authority of this Commission. The placement fees paid by the Filipino teachers were charged by UPI an unlicensed employment service in violation of Louisiana’s Private Employment Service regulatory scheme. UPI is ordered to refund the placement fees paid by the Filipino teachers to UPI,” the court directed.

ABS-CBN’s North America News Bureau helped raise the alarm last year after the Filipino teachers mounted protest actions in their schools against what they said were the onerous terms of their contracts with UPI.

When school officials learned about this, they stopped taking in additional Filipino teachers, stranding many who had already arrived in the US but have not yet reported to their assigned schools.

UPI lawyers say the Filipino teachers were only trying to wiggle out of their contracts. They said they will appeal the decision in the district courts.

But they have more serious issues to contend with. The administrative court could elevate the instance of UPI’s operating without a license – a criminal offense – to the district courts. That decision rests with the Louisiana Workforce Commission, according to Judge Dick.

That violation is classified as a misdemeanor punishable by a fine or imprisonment of not more than six months, or both.

Collecting fees to pay for the teachers’ H-1B visas is also a federal offense. The AFT had also looked into the feasibility of charging Navarro and UPI of “involuntary servitude” for allegedly holding on to their visas unless they continued paying them the fees – now declared to be illegal – and allegedly threatening to have the teachers deported if they protested.

Lawyer Arnedo Valera, an executive director of the Virginia-based Migrant Heritage Commission (MHC), said they are near securing special visas for some of the teachers who’ve fallen out of status because of the dislocation of Filipino teachers in Louisiana. Those visas are given to victims of crimes or potential witnesses in cases being prosecuted in America.