Work Travel challenges in Door County

Sep. 14, 2013

Despite Door County employers’ dependence on Summer Work Travel employees, some current and former program participants, as well as Work Travel employers, say employers try to take advantage of students.

Some allegations, such as excessively harsh criticism, are minor. But others include violations of employment contracts or even federal law.

While not widespread, examples of alleged contract violations include employer threats to fire students who complain about their work situations to sponsor organizations, and employers not providing students with sufficient work hours per week. Allegations of illegality include employers not paying overtime rates as mandated by the Fair Labor Standards Act, or refusing to give students their paychecks when their jobs end.

“Nothing will kill the program faster than employers taking advantage of students,” said Lars Johnson, owner of Al Johnson’s Restaurant in Sister Bay and a member of the Wisconsin Restaurant Association Board. “I am disappointed in some of my employers in this industry.”

A busser who participated in the Work Travel program for several years before moving permanently to Door County to work alleged that one of his employers guaranteed him a higher hourly pay rate in the employment contract than he was actually paid.

“Every $2 less per hour is one less loaf of bread on your table,” said the busser, who asked not to be named. He repeatedly emphasized that employer transparency is the larger issue.

“You (customers) come here, you eat for $8,” the busser said. “(But) what kind of people are making the food? If you pay 20 bucks, how much do they make?”

If contract violations or other violations occur, students in Door County don’t formally report them either to their sponsor organizations or to the government. Organizations and regulatory agencies contacted by the Advocate about possible complaints either said they hadn’t received any or didn’t respond to emails.

Students and employers say there are several reasons students may not report violations. Many are afraid that if they complain, they will lose their jobs or be stigmatized as difficult employees. Some, particularly those from former Soviet countries, don’t trust the government, and so won’t call the hotline set up by the State Department.

Even if students intend to contact either the State Department or their sponsor organizations, they may not be able to do so because they don’t always have easy access to Internet, email or a telephone. (International cell phone plans don’t always work in the U.S.)

A more widespread problem Work Travel students in Door County face is a lack of housing. Large businesses, such as the Alpine and Landmark resorts in Egg Harbor, often have dorms for their student workers, both because those businesses tend to hire more students and because they can afford to own student housing. But many students who work at small businesses must find housing on their own, and employers are not required to provide it.

A waiter who requested anonymity said employers are reluctant to buy houses that will be used only a few months per year, so students must find housing on their own — at exactly the same time as vacationers descend on Door County.

“It’s hard,” he said. “The county’s so small and everything’s so expensive. Where would you find housing for two to three months?

“They’re not going to end up on the streets,” the waiter said of the students. “There’s like a few local guys who will rent these houses (to students), but they’ll pack 10 people in.”

Nadiia Bondarieva, a 19-year-old Ukrainian student who works at three Sister Bay businesses, said she currently lives in a two-bathroom house with nine other students. She said the hardest part about the arrangement is days when most of the students have to be at work at 9 a.m. and there’s a scramble for the bathrooms.

Other students end up living in different towns than the ones in which they work; some of these students bike 10 or 15 miles to and from work each day because they don’t have cars and Door County doesn’t have much public transportation.

Housing is “almost like a person-to-person basis,” the waiter said. “It kind of works out because people here are good … but it’s tough.”

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