Forty-one students from Bulgaria and the Ukraine who worked on the Emerald Coast this summer through a visa program have sued the company that made their living and working arrangements.
The students, who also named several other defendants in their lawsuit, claim they were mistreated during their time in the United States.
The students say they were defrauded and made to stay in unacceptable living conditions, in violation of work agreements they signed, according to the complaint filed last month in Okaloosa Circuit Court.
Read a copy of the lawsuit. >>
The suit names Global Education Concepts (GEC) as the primary defendant along with its parent company, Southwestern/Great American Inc. It also specifically names the students’ housing manager, Andrew Shepitko, who works as a vendor for GEC.
GEC is a designated sponsor for the J-1 Visa Summer Work Travel Program conducted by the U.S. Department of State. The program offers foreign college students a chance to work and travel in the United States.
Those who participate are guaranteed housing, a set number of work hours and a set wage. In the complaint, the students say none of the promises made to them were kept.
According to the complaint, “GEC, Southwestern, and Shepitko made false statements to (the students) about material facts including but not limited to quality and cost of housing, transportation and distance from housing to job site, costs associated with the program.”
The complaint also questions the “availability of GEC to help and support when problems arose,” the work hours available to students and the jobs they would be performing.
It questions whether “GEC, its agents, and employees complied with all applicable law.”
David Fuscus, GEC spokesman, said the accusations in the complaint are “baseless” and added that when the organization heard about the allegations, an internal investigation was immediately launched but did not find anything.
“Nothing is more important to us than the welfare of these students,” Fuscus said. “When we did our investigation we found nothing. No verbal complaints, nothing in our monthly reports, and we sent people out almost immediately.”
According to the complaint, the students were forced to sleep on floors and couches with no linens and dirty mattresses and share rooms and beds with other students without regard to gender.
The student workplaces were as far as four miles from the housing location and no form of transportation was provided to the students, the complaint says.
Fuscus said students were supplied with “clean, decent housing” and every workplace was a “walkable” distance, which he defined as 30 minutes or less from the students’ home.
Shepitko was cited in the complaint for allegedly charging excessive rent and sometimes charging higher prices for female tenants.
It also claims he charged students between $4 and $25 to drive them to and from their work.
The complaint also states Shepitko did not guarantee the students would be on time when he was transporting them.
The 35 work hours a week the students were promised were trimmed down, and at some point the students had to rely on community members for food, shelter and transportation, according to the complaint.
The lead attorney handling the case, Tiffany Sullivan of Pensacola-based Moore, Hill & Westmoreland, said she was made aware of the students’ plight following the May death of Galina Bumbalova, a 19-year-old Bulgarian woman who was killed while riding her bicycle from her workplace at Winn-Dixie to her home miles away.
“I spoke with the students and their story was so compelling and upsetting I just felt like I didn’t have an option but to represent them,” Sullivan said. “I would like the Department of State to take a look at GEC’s practices and make them change those practices or pull their abilities.”
Fuscus said GEC will fight the lawsuit “vigorously.”
“We’re not really worried about a civil liability,” he said. “All the charges we have seen were totally inconsistent.”
Fuscus added that five of the 41 students cited in the complaint have applied through GEC to work at the same location as they did last summer.
Other named defendants in the lawsuit include Northumberland Hotel Partners, CN Palm Street Hotel Partners, and Winn-Dixie Stores — all business that employed the students.