In late summer 2011, we blogged about an incident at a Hershey Co. distribution center in Palmyra, when a large group of foreign exchange students walked off their jobs for being overworked and underpaid. Over a year later, their protest paid off: in later 2012, federal officials said $213,000 in back wages will be paid to the over 1,000 foreign students, as well as $143,000 in fines.
According to an article on PennLive.com, the back wages and penalties are part of a settlement involving Exel inc., SHS Staffing Solutions, and the Council for Educational Travel-USA (CET-USA), which matched foreign students with jobs as part of an educational exchange program. Exel ran the Palmyra distribution center under a contract with The Hershey Co., which has said it was not directly involved with the students’ wages and working conditions.
Students said they were overworked, underpaid, and charged excessive rent by the host organization — terms and conditions that were very different than what they signed up for. One student said she was paid $8.35 an hour and charged $400 a month for rent, which was deducted from her paycheck. She also said she had little opportunity to visit American cities and learn about the country, as she had expected.
The walkout was organized by the National Guest Worker Alliance and led to protests against The Hershey Co. It led to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The SHS Group, under contract with Exel, hired the students and placed them at the Palmyra site. SHS was penalized for repeat violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. Exel, SHS, and CETUSA shared the cost of the back wages. The civil penalties were assessed to Exel.
In addition to the settlement, Exel must implement measures to prevent labor- and safety-related violations at all of Exel’s facilities across the United States. They must comply with minimum wage and overtime laws, maintain a hotline for workers who believe their rights were violated, and maintain a log of all labor law violations related to the company for the next three years. They must also implement a hearing protection program at the Palmyra facility as well as address noise at all its facilities.
It’s not always easy to stand up for your rights when you believe you are being wronged by your employer. We applaud the bravery of the foreign students who stood up for their rights. And we remind all our U.S. workers that you do indeed have rights to fair wages and a safe working environment. If you believe your working rights are being violated, or fear that you could be injured on the job, contact the attorney team at O’Connor Law for a free review of your case.