Screwed and Tattooed, Foreign Students Say

     PENSACOLA, Fla. (CN) – Global Education Concepts defrauded dozens of foreign students, put them to forced labor, and stuffed them into crowded, unsafe housing in a State Department-sponsored “work and travel program,” 39 students claim in court.
     The students sued Global Educational Concepts (GEC), its parent company Southwestern/Great American, and their “housing manager,” Andrew Shepitko, in Okaloosa County Court.
     Also named as defendants are Northumberland Hotel Partners (NHP), CN Palm Street Hotel Partners (PALM), and Winn-Dixie Stores, which put the plaintiffs to work at their stores and hotels in Florida.
     All of the plaintiffs have Russian-sounding or Slavic names: Ilia Borisov, Ivalina Bumbalova, Vladyslav Mokrenko …
     GEC and Southwestern, based in Tennessee, sponsor a summer work and travel program organized by the U.S. Department of State. The program allows international students to work in the United States on a J-1 visa for up to 4 months during their university summer break.
     In late 2011 and 2012 the plaintiffs entered into work agreements with GEC, which promised them jobs with Winn-Dixie, NHP and PALM, in Florida.
     Participants in the work travel program are often pre-placed with host organizations, such as Winn-Dixie, NHP and PALM, before arriving in the United States.
     The students claim that GEC misrepresented the housing conditions and costs it would offer, promising to charge them $91 per week and a $250 refundable deposit for housing units within walking distance from the students’ worksites.
     They say the company promised to provide transportation to and from work at a reasonable cost, and at least 35 hours of work per week for each student.
     But, the students say that when they arrived in Florida in May and June this year, GEC and Shepitko sent them to unsanitary, crowded units, for which they charged excessive rent and deposits.
     “Contrary to the representations made to plaintiffs, GEC arranged unsuitable housing for plaintiffs,” the complaint states. “GEC assigned approximately eight (8) summer work travel program participants, sometimes more, to each housing location. Plaintiffs were forced to sleep on floors and couches. No linens, towels, or pillows were provided, only dirty mattresses. The distance between the housing locations and plaintiffs’ worksites were usually in excess of four (4) miles, well over an hour walk.
     “Plaintiffs were charged excessive deposits by GEC and Shepitko. Some of the male plaintiffs were charged deposits of approximately $250 to $400, while Shepitko often required larger deposits from the female plaintiffs. Plaintiffs were informed that much of their deposits would not be refundable.
     “Plaintiffs were charged excessive rent by defendants GEC and Shepitko. For example, for a small apartment over a garage, six (6) plaintiffs paid $3,492.00 to Shepitko and GEC for only two weeks rent.”
     Some of the students tried to find housing on their own, but were unsuccessful, according to the complaint.
     A group of plaintiffs who worked for Winn-Dixie in Destin, Fla., claim they had no cars and no access to public transportation, and relied on Shepitko to take them to work.
     Destin, in the Florida Panhandle, pop. 12,000, has no public transportation.
     The students say that Shepitko was often late, charged them as much as $25 per person, and drove faster than 90 miles per hour, causing them emotional distress.
     “Plaintiffs could not afford to pay Shepitko for transportation at a cost varying between $4 and $25 per person per way,” the complaint states. “In addition, Shepitko was rarely on time and plaintiffs were often late to work. Many plaintiffs were left with no option but to walk several hours each way to and from work.”
     After some of them bought bicycles to ride to work, the students say, “individuals at Winn-Dixie eventually became concerned about plaintiffs’ health, safety, and welfare while riding the bicycle to and from Winn-Dixie’s store. An agent or employee of Winn-Dixie inquired of Shepitko and GEC whether Winn-Dixie could provide transportation for plaintiffs. Shepitko and GEC informed the agent or employee that Winn-Dixie could not provide transportation to plaintiffs.”
     The students say Winn-Dixie and the other employers took no further action, though all were aware of their transportation and living situation.
     They say the employers scheduled them to work mostly between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. And as the summer went by, the employers cut their work hours below the 35 per week they had been promised.
     When they tried to find second jobs, Shepitko and GEC asked the students to pay them $2 for every hour they worked at their second jobs, according to the complaint.
     Many students say they were left with no money for food, and suffered severe emotional distress from lack of food, sleep, housing and transportation.
     They seek treble damages for fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation, fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, unfair trade practices, civil theft, negligent supervision, breach of fiduciary duty, and forced labor.
     They are represented by Tiffany Sullivan with Moore, Hill & Westmoreland.

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