Leaders of Baltimore's Filipino teachers say the city school district has followed the same hiring practices that led federal officials to order a multimillion-dollar payout in Prince George's County this week.
The U.S. Department of Labor ordered Prince George's schools to pay $4.2 million in back wages to Filipino teachers who had to pay $1,000 in visa fees when they were hired. The county must also pay a $1.7 million fine.
Anthony Japzon, president of the Filipino Educators in Maryland, said Baltimore teachers have told him that their hiring process and paperwork were similar to those of colleagues in Prince George's hired about the same time.
"All costs associated with coming to the United States and being employed were borne by the teachers, borne by the applicant," Japzon said.
The teachers willingly paid the fees, and the school district leadership may not have been aware it was doing anything wrong, local Filipino leaders said.
Officials of Baltimore's school district — which has more than 500 Filipino teachers — said they are looking into the matter. But they did not answer questions about recruitment and hiring practices.
The Department of Labor declined to comment on whether Baltimore was being investigated for its hiring practices. The agency only comments on closed investigations, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander.
Alexander said, however, that the office has completed almost 20 cases since 2005 involving schools using the H-1B visa program. She declined to say how many investigations are open.
The Labor Department objected to the fee arrangement involving Prince George's Filipino teachers because foreign workers can only be hired through an H-1B program if they get the same salary an American worker would. Having to pay visa fees left Filipino teachers with a lower salary than American teachers.
"All employers, including school systems, are required to follow the law. That includes the legal duty to pay every teacher hired the full wages he or she is owed," Nancy J. Leppink, acting administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, said in announcing the Prince George's order.
Baltimore's school district began hiring large numbers of Filipinos several years ago, when it did not have enough qualified applicants for teaching jobs. The Filipino teachers, who often had years of experience overseas, paid high fees to come to the United States because jobs were scarce in the Philippines.
The city hired its Filipino teachers through employment firms in the Philippines; each teacher paid about $10,000 to find a job and get to the United States.
Teachers typically paid the fees before they came to the country. The employment firms generally flew school district officials to the Philippines, where they interviewed prospective teachers.
The fees paid by teachers were usually combined, Japzon said, so many teachers did not know the size of each fee, including the visa fee called into question in Prince George's County.
"The hiring practice and procedure and the description of how these fees were paid, that is not unsimilar to what was going on in Baltimore," Japzon said.
Several U.S. districts have hired large numbers of Filipino teachers, including the city and Prince George's. In fiscal year 2009, the latest data available, Baltimore was approved for 187 petitions under the H-1B program, according to a Department of Homeland Security website.
Aileen Mercado, a Filipino who has taught in the city for six years and is a Baltimore Teachers Union vice president, was unaware of any teacher filing a complaint with the Department of Labor regarding work visa fees. But she has been paying close attention to the cases in Prince George's County and Louisiana.
The American Federation of Teachers joined other groups in a class action lawsuit last year on behalf of about 500 Filipino teachers in the East Baton Rouge and surrounding districts, alleging that recruiters used the guise of the H1-B program to defraud the Filipino teachers out of thousands of dollars in recruitment fees. They claimed that the extent of the scheme mirrored human trafficking.
Mercado could not recall how much she paid to come teach in Baltimore, but said, "We definitely paid visa fees when we first got here. Everybody does that — everybody knows that."
She added, "I think teachers were willing to pay, but I don't think the district meant any harm when they hired us."
Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, echoed the same sentiment, saying she was "shocked" by the Prince George's case. Visa fees haven't been an issue, she said, adding, "Unfortunately, if you don't know about it, you can't do anything about it."
In a statement, AFT President Randi Weingarten said of the Prince George's case that "it is appalling that a school district illegally and unfairly exploited workers who came from other countries to teach in American schools."
The AFT, in attempting to highlight what it believes is school system exploitation of the foreign teachers, is lobbying for legislation to regulate the recruitment industry.
Mercado said that the Prince George's County decision was "ground-breaking," and she hoped it could serve as a learning opportunity for Baltimore union leaders and the American Federation of Teachers, the BTU's parent organization. They will begin meeting next week to establish a proposed code of ethics for international recruitment.
"There have been issues not just here in Baltimore and Prince George's County, but in other places," she said. "So, this would be a good way to have a constructive dialogue."
Mercado said that since the passage of the Baltimore Teachers Union contract last fall, the district has made more of an effort to assist international teachers with visas, such as hiring an attorney and a liaison to spearhead the process and address teachers' concerns. As part of that deal, Filipino teachers no longer have to pay attorney fees to have their visas renewed, she said.
"What I would suggest is for everyone to get educated about the existing regulations and best hiring practices, and move forward," Mercado said.
Recruiting from the Philippines
• More than 500 Filipinos teaching in Baltimore
• Job-seekers typically paid $10,000 to find a job
•Foreign teachers must get same salary as Americans