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04/08/02 . by Walter F. Roche Jr. Special to the Tribune . Chicago Tribune . U.S.A.  
McDonald's Paycheck has Foreign Student FedUp  
ABINGDON, Md. -- When Peter Kasprzyk and several other students from Poland and Slovakia arrived this summer to work for the McDonald's restaurant chain, they said they had been told they would make a lot of money, "more money than you could imagine."  

But Kasprzyk could not buy an item from the dollar menu with his first paycheck. It was zero.

That's because he and four fellow students were docked for $2,000 monthly rent on a two-bedroom apartment they share in Abingdon that normally goes for $750 a month. That deduction wiped out every cent Kasprzyk made flipping hamburgers for $8 an hour at a McDonald's outlet.

On top of those deductions, Kasprzyk had to pay $200 for a security deposit on the apartment, and share the $20 daily round-trip cab fare to work.

"We were taken advantage of," said the 22-year-old Pole, who decided to walk away from the job and risk forfeiting his apartment security deposit.

McDonald's, which was listed as his landlord on the unsigned duplicate of the three-page apartment lease, refused to comment at first, with corporate headquarters officials referring questions about the students' situation to the regional office in Baltimore.

That office, in turn, referred all questions to Donna Maertens, of Stafford, Va., who has recruited about 400 foreign students this year for temporary jobs at McDonald's restaurants from Maryland to Virginia

On Friday, Robert Palmer, regional marketing director for the fast-food chain, said the company had taken steps to answer complaints from the students.

For her part, Maertens said the students signed a contract before they came to this country.

"They were told everything," she said. "They have orientation sessions. They know all the conditions." Maertens said the rent was higher than normal because it was for a shorter period than the normal lease and included furniture and utilities.

Kasprzyk and his colleagues said they were pressured by Maertens' agent to sign the English-language rental agreement without adequate time to read and understand it.

Group gets involved

The Maryland chapter of the Polish American Congress unanimously adopted a resolution calling for hearings into the situation after meeting Thursday with the students.

"It's immoral, if it's not illegal," said Edward Rybczynski, who offered the resolution. "We're talking about people being used and abused. It's un-American."

The resolution asks members of the Maryland congressional delegation to conduct hearings on the apparent abuses and on requiring the licensing of any recruiters. The group also asked for an investigation by state officials

The students came to the United States under J-1 visas as part of a work-travel program authorized by the State Department. Maertens said the visas were issued through the Council on International Educational Exchange, a New York City-based non-profit organization that brings thousands of foreign students to this country every year.

Stanley Colvin, head of the State Department bureau that oversees the work-travel visa program, said the complaints from the students were being investigated.

Under the program, foreign students may spend as long as four months working in the United States and take an additional month to tour and travel.

Kasprzyk and his fellow workers said they paid $500 to sign up with Maertens' program and $1,000 for airfare.

They expected to spend a profitable summer but were swiftly disappointed. Instead of working eight-hour shifts at McDonald's, they said they were sent home when business slowed down.

"It's hypocritical," Kasprzyk said. "They smile only to tell you, `Go home."'

Take-home pay: $0

As a result, he worked only 17.22 hours during his first pay period, which ended July 6, and earned gross pay of $137.76, according to his pay stub.

But that amount was wiped out by deductions. The pay stub, which misspells his name as "Piotor J. Kasprzyk," shows $2 was subtracted for Medicare and $8.54 for Social Security. These deductions were made even though students participating in the J-1 program are exempt from those payments, Colvin said.

By far the largest amount subtracted was listed under the category, "voluntary deductions." A total of $127.22 was taken out for "crew housing deduction." Added to the payments for Medicare and Social Security, the deductions totaled $137.76, exactly the amount he had earned.

Kasprzyk said the other students also complained to CIEE but were told the same thing they had heard from Maertens: You signed a contract, now you have to live with it.

"It could be a misunderstanding or a lack of clear communication," said CIEE spokeswoman Pamela Posey, who promised to look into the matter.

Palmer said the students were being reimbursed for the incorrect Social Security and Medicare deductions. He explained that the problem occurred because they had not filled out the proper forms.

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