Mikulski urges inquiry of McDonald's program


Citing a series of apparent abuses, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski has asked the State Department to investigate a program that has brought 400 foreign students to the United States to work in area McDonald's restaurants.

In the two-page letter sent Wednesday, the Baltimore Democrat said an immediate investigation was necessary "to determine what happened" and "to ensure that other exchange visitors do not have similar experiences."

"We need immediate action to help the young people who are already here," Mikulski wrote in the letter to Charlotte Beers, undersecretary for public diplomacy and affairs.

Mikulski's request came in response to a resolution approved late last week by the Maryland Chapter of the Polish American Congress, which has intervened for several of the students who were recruited by McDonald's under its International Placement Program.

Late last month, Stanley Colvin, head of the State Department bureau over the work-travel visa program, said the students' complaints were being investigated.

As The Sun reported last month, some of the students recruited by the restaurant chain to work in its outlets in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia ended up with net pay of nothing on their first checks because of deductions for housing.

Five students from Poland said they were forced by a McDonald's agent to sign an agreement under which they had to pay $2,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in Abingdon, about triple the usual rate. The rental contract listed McDonald's as the landlord.

After The Sun article, McDonald's officials acknowledged that other improper deductions had been made from some of the students' paychecks for Social Security and Medicare. The errors were subsequently corrected. A company spokesman said the initial paychecks were reduced to zero because they covered only a partial pay period.

The company also has defended its program, saying most participants are pleased with it.

The students came to the United States under the J-1 visa program, a work-study arrangement overseen by the State Department. Under the program, the foreign students can work here for three months and spend one month traveling.

Charles J. Slomski, president of the local chapter of the Polish American Congress, said yesterday that his organization already had found alternative housing for two of the McDonald's recruits. The two also found new jobs with the group's assistance.

Slomski said his organization is also working to find any other recruits who want or need assistance. He said they have asked officials of the restaurant chain to return the $200 security deposit each of the students was required to pay.

In her letter to the State Department, Mikulski wrote, "I am counting on you to investigate these apparent abuses and ensure that your implementing partners take appropriate action to remedy the situation."

The visas for the McDonald's program were issued through the Council on International Educational Exchange, a New York-based nonprofit organization. Council officials have said they also are looking into the students' complaints.

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