In response to the media attention surrounding foreign student guest workers, at least three area townships are investigating the workers complaints about housing violations. The student workers, who this week protested against the working conditions at the McDonalds on Trindle Road in Camp Hill, also complained about the living conditions in the basement apartment eight of them rent at a home owned by the same person who also owns the McDonalds. East Pennsboro Township director of housing and community development, John Owen, announced Friday, March 8th that they will investigate a home on the first block of Hillside Circle to see if homeowner Andy Cheung is violating local ordinances regarding the number of non-related people paying rent to live in his residential property. Hampden Township reportedly is also expected to investigate similar complaints at a home in the 100 block of Maple Avenue. In Swatera Township there were reports about a home on Kelker Avenue where student workers made complaints about overcrowded living conditions. At Cheung's East Pennsboro home, eight student workers alleged that they were required to pay Cheung around $65 a week out of their $7.25/hr pay to live in his basement. Living dormitory-style in bunk beds in a crowded area, four men and four women had next to no privacy in the basement some sleeping next to the furnace, water heater and oil tank with only a curtain separating the men and women. In East Pennsboro Township, there are policies that define how many unrelated people who are paying rent can reside in one dwelling. Depending upon the outcome of the investigation, Cheung could face fines and penalties.
Cheung, who owns six McDonald franchises in the Harrisburg area, came under attack on Wednesday, March 6th, when about 50 student workers and their supporters from the National Guestworker Alliance stood outside the McDonalds on Trindle Road which is owned by Cheung to protest unfair working conditions. The foreign students, who are in the country legally through a U.S. Department of State program known as the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor program, paid upwards of $3500 to come from their home country to the United States for a four month period to learn more about American culture. Part of the program requires them to work to earn living expense money which can also be used towards their travel costs which part of the purpose of cultural exchange. The eight students working at the Trindle Road McDonalds said that their monthly rent was deducted by Cheung directly from their paychecks, and considering they were not permitted to work a 40-hour week per the exchange program guidelines, they barely had enough money to live let alone to travel. Rodrigo Valenzuela, one of the guest workers who formerly lived at the house on Maple Avenue, said that he worked overnights and slept in a utility room. Having been promised living arrangements in an apartment, Valenzuela found himself the victim of a bait and switch. Complaining that the 40 hours he was promised often were much less with sometimes only 14 hours of work in one week, he barely had enough money to pay the rent let alone buy meals and afford basic essentials.
In some of the comments on Penn Live to the articles about the guest workers, people reported being outraged in hearing about the deplorable living and working conditions the student workers were exposed and remarked about the negative image the students may have about the United States on a whole because of their experience living and working in the country. Acknowledging that U.S. citizens would want their college-aged youth to receive fair equitable treatment in another host country if they went to live and work in a foreign country, some commentators expressed disgust for Cheung and voiced their opinion that one way to show their disdain is to boycott the McDonald franchises that he owns and operates.
Cheung reportedly is the owner of six McDonalds locations:
1284 S Market St, Elizabethtown
2270 W Harrisburg Pike, Middletown
850 Eisenhower Blvd, Harrisburg
4230 Trindle Rd, Camp Hill
1 Lemoyne Dr, Lemoyne
6004 Derry St, Harrisburg
While Cheung refused to comment about the worker's allegations and has not returned calls for an interview, McDonalds Corporation issued a statement on March 7th to Penn Live stating that they do take the student guest worker's complaints seriously and are investigating the allegations. A couple of people commenting on the article said that they also contacted McDonalds Corp about the situation and received an email stating the same response. The National Guestworker Alliance which represents the foreign student workers created an online petition demanding that McDonalds pay the student workers back pay they are due to unpaid overtime, housing overcharges and the money they paid to work at the restaurant.
Due to a complaint filled by student workers who were employed at three of the McDonalds owned by Cheung, the U.S. Department of Labor is investigating the allegations that the workers were paid less than minimum wage, received sometimes as little as four hours of work in a week, had rent deducted automatically from their pay, required to work and not be paid for the time and told to falsify time sheets to match the pay stubs. The guest workers request that they be compensated for back pay and that penalties be enforced against Cheung and Geo Visions which is the organization that managed their placement. In addition, the U.S. Department of State is also conducting their own investigation into the matter to determine if the student workers were exploited by Cheung. Susan Pittman, who oversees the J-1 program said that complaints were made back in February, and they are in the process of reviewing the complaint. Should the student workers complaints be found valid, both Cheung and Geo Visions could be removed for life from the J-1 placement list. Considering the guest workers are only in the U.S. for a total of four months and Pittman has no idea how long the investigation may take, it is highly probable that the foreign students will have returned to their country before any outcome and consequences can be determined.