for J-1 workers during the COVID-19 crisis
Background The J-1 visa is a temporary non-immigrant visa that is utilized by the US government, employers, and visa sponsors, to expand the guest worker program and bring in cheap labor from abroad, without a pathway to permanent residency. In particular, promises of “cultural exchange” and “professional training” are used in the J-1 “internship program” for students and new graduates to lure them into the US, only to end up as a more profitable replacement for the domestic workforce.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hotels and other hospitality establishments around the U.S. have closed down, leading to a mass lay-off of workers including J-1 workers who are now in limbo and in need of support. This Know Your Rights FAQ Guide aims to inform J-1 workers of their rights and resources available to them during this time.
On immediate needs and resources
Can we apply for unemployment benefits? Depending on the state where you worked and the duration of your employment, you may be eligible for unemployment insurance. Unemployment insurance provides cash benefits to eligible workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own. Visit dol.gov/coronavirus/unemployment-insurance to find the contact information of your state insurance agency.
Can we avail of rent assistance?
Depending on your city of residence, there may be an eviction moratorium policy in place. It prohibits evictions for non-payment of rent by tenants who are unable to pay rent due to COVID-related circumstances. Please note that even if there is an eviction moratorium policy in place, you will still need to pay the rent at a later time.
You must also contact your host company, visa sponsor, and recruitment agency to ask about assistance during this time of crisis, and if they are able to help with any of your urgent needs such as rent. Review your program contract and the stipulations around assistance in time of emergency. Some J-1 workers have received an “emergency fund.”
Can we avail of assistance for food or groceries?
Depending on your location, you may be able to access local non-profit organizations or food banks that provide free groceries or food. Some do not require any kind of identification or documentation.
Can we avail of assistance from the Philippine government?
It is the Philippine government’s responsibility to protect the rights and welfare of all distressed Filipinos abroad. The Commision on Filipinos Overseas (CFO), under the Office of the President, is the government agency primarily responsible for J-1 workers abroad. Through the Assistance to Nationals Program (ATN) program of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), and their consulates and embassies, Filipinos are entitled to assistance in repatriation and other needs.
On employment and J-1 visa Note: It is always important to refer to contracts or agreements signed by J-1 workers while in the Philippines and when they arrive and/or are placed for work in the USA.
What documentation should I have upon termination?
Ensure that notice of termination from your host company is in written format. Reach out to your sponsor as soon as possible. Any arrangements or offer of program change between you and your visa sponsor must be documented. For example, if they verbally tell you that you are not officially terminated, and that you can wait for the hotel to open again, ensure that these promises are written down.
Can we get a refund if our program ended sooner than agreed on our contract?
Immediately email your visa sponsor and recruitment agency asking about this option, especially if you were just working for a few months before being laid off or if you did not get to start at all. Keep a documentation of your correspondences with your visa sponsor and recruitment agency.
What if we were not paid for all the hours we worked?
You may be a victim of wage theft and may be eligible to receive unpaid wages. You need to consult an attorney regarding the wages owed to you and ways to recover those wages.
Can we transfer to a new host company?
Your visa is tied to your host company or employer. Contact your visa sponsor if a transfer to a new host company is possible. Note that the majority of hospitality establishments will be closed for the next several months due to COVID-19.
Can we extend our program dates?
As of April 2, the State Department is extending the program end dates of programs originally ending between April 1 – May 31, 2020 for another 2 months. For those whose programs are ending in March, the State Department is working with sponsors to push the program end date to May 31, 2020. Your sponsor is responsible for providing you the updated paperwork for the extension. source: j1visa.state.gov/covid-19/
What liability/ies do/es our program sponsors and host companies have in ensuring the well-being of the J-1 workers?
Your program sponsors and host companies may, depending on the circumstances, be liable to you. For example, if your program sponsors and host companies have made misrepresentations to you to recruit you to the United States, they could be liable to you for fraud. If you have any questions about your legal rights, including questions about whether your program sponsor or host company may be liable to you, you should contact a lawyer.
From the State Department website (j1visa.state.gov/covid-19/), under the section “Program Disruption”
What if an exchange visitor is unable to participate in his or her exchange program for the required minimum of 32 hours?
The Department understands that the COVID-19 situation has caused a major disruption in program participation… Sponsors should document all such unique circumstances, and must continue to monitor exchange programs to ensure they meet program objectives to the fullest extent possible during this situation. Sponsors must also closely monitor the health, safety and welfare of each exchange visitor to determine if remaining on the exchange program is truly feasible.
How could the different parties responsible for our recruitment be liable for false promises?
Think about the promises that your recruitment agency in the Philippines or visa sponsor gave you during your application process. Were agreements around “cultural exchange” and “professional training” actually met, or were you used as a substitute for local workforce, performing the same duties as regular workers from the US? The J-1 “trainee and internship program” has been used to deceive and lure people with false promises, so it is advisable to consult an attorney or advocate about this experience.
What should we do now?
It is important that you know your rights. At the same time, you must work with fellow J-1 workers and be organized so that collectively you can assert your rights and support each other. Hundreds, if not thousands, of displaced J-1 workers are now clamoring for immediate support.
It is also important to go beyond your immediate needs and understand the need to address the exploitation of J-1 workers as a whole. The COVID-19 crisis showed that during a time of crisis, workers, especially foreign workers on temporary visas in the US, are treated as disposable. You will also find that laws both in the Philippines and the US have limitations in protecting your rights and well-being, which is why coming together and organizing yourselves as J-1 workers and advocating for your rights, health, and wellness are essential.
Know that you are not alone in this struggle. Inform your families and friends about your condition and welcome their support. Work hand in hand with organizations, individuals and other workers who are ready to support you.
National Alliance for Filipino Concerns (NAFCON)
Phone: (415) 683-6835
Phone: (469) 616-2773