Chief U.S. District Judge Leonard Strand on Friday ordered a trial in the lawsuit to begin on Jan. 8, 2024, in U.S. District Court in Sioux City.
A lawsuit filed by 14 students from Chile who made similar claims is not yet set for trial.
In both lawsuits, students said WITCC recruited them to Sioux City through the federal J-1 Student Study Program, telling them they’d be in a two-year degree program in either culinary arts or robotics, receive scholarships covering tuition and housing, and be provided with an internship in their field of study.
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Instead, they said, they were often forced to work more than 50 hours a week at North Sioux City pet food manufacturer Royal Canin and Sioux City food processor Tur-Pak Foods and had more than half their wages withheld and paid to WITCC for tuition and housing. They also said they were told they would be deported or have housing and food withheld if they missed work because of illness. WITCC canceled the program in March 2020, citing concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
The lawsuits accuse WITCC and its President Terry Murrell, Tur-Pak, Royal Canin, Premier Services (also known as J&L Staffing and Recruiting and J&L Enterprises), and other college officials with forced labor, human trafficking, racketeering, violation of the 13th Amendment prohibiting involuntary servitude, fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation, unjust enrichment, breach of contract, and infliction of emotional distress. Tur-Pak and Royal Canin also are accused of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act.
In a brief supporting a motion to dismiss the lawsuits, WITCC said the students were disappointed with the program’s requirements and, in seeking an opportunity to stay permanently in the United States “weaponized their malcontent into a civil action alleging that defendants engaged in human trafficking and forced labor.”
In the case involving the Chilean students, Strand has dismissed the racketeering charges against all defendants. He denied defense motions to dismiss the human trafficking and forced labor charges.
In a March ruling, Strand wrote that at the same time WITCC promised the students jobs and internships related to robotics or culinary experience, the school entered into an agreement with Royal Canin and Tur-Pak to place the students in “unskilled, manual labor positions, contrary to what they were telling (the students). WITCC defendants even admitted in an email the purpose of the program was to address the local labor shortage.”
WITCC offered the program for the first time in 2019, and 60 students from Brazil and Chile arrived that summer. Through J&L, a Sioux City job placement service, students secured jobs at Royal Canin and Tur-Pak, which announced earlier this year it is closing its Sioux City location.
Through the U.S. State Department, the students obtained a J-1 visa, which requires that in return for a scholarship that pays tuition, housing and other fees, students must work at an internship to gain experience in their field of study.
Strand said in his ruling that preliminary evidence in the lawsuits shows WITCC told students it had mistakenly partnered with J&L, which as a job agency was not allowed to participate in the J-1 program, though the company continued to assist WITCC in placing the students and collected placement fees from the companies and transportation fees from the students. In order to meet program guidelines, the students’ programs were changed to food services or electromechanical technical, which the school said corresponded halfway to culinary arts and robotics.
WITCC certified with the State Department that students would be participating in job shadowing at the college cafeteria and observe a hotel restaurant and a food preparation industry. Mechanical students would shadow and assist technicians in maintenance and other duties at WITCC business partners.
The students have said their jobs had nothing to do with their education. Those working at Royal Canin said their jobs consisted of carrying 50-pound bags of pet food ingredients or moving 50-pound blocks of frozen meat.
According to the lawsuit, the students were paid $15 an hour, $7.75 of which was withheld from their paychecks and given to WITCC and J&L Staffing as payment for their scholarships, room and board. Some said they were left without enough money to buy food because the college did not provide the meals it had promised them.
The State Department received an anonymous complaint in November 2019 and in a subsequent investigation found the positions were not the type of internships promised. Strand said evidence has shown WITCC made the students quit their jobs and told them they would owe $250 per week for room, board, tuition and fees.
After students went public with their complaints about the program, Murrell said WITCC did not ask them to pay housing and tuition. He said a free meal plan was never promised, and the school had failed to clarify that point at the program’s outset. The college later announced that all students had been placed in new jobs. The Chilean students said in their lawsuit they were never placed in new internships and that WITCC later canceled their visas and bought them airline tickets to go home.
WITCC said it provided plane tickets for the 57 to return home, but on the date of departure, 14 were no-shows. Some students have retained immigration lawyers and have remained in the United States
All students in the lawsuits are seeking an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages.
WITCC officials named in the lawsuit are Terry Yi, Rosana Salgado Burright, Juline Albert, James Zuercher, and Lily Castro.