Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) is trying to fight back at a determination by the Department of Labor (DOL) that says the school system erred in compensating teachers in its H-1B temporary foreign worker visa program.

PGCPS Superintendent William Hite, who said the county will appeal the decision, acknowledged mistakes were made, but said officials acted swiftly to correct those problems.

“In our attempt to comply with the rigorous mandates of the Federal No Child Left Behind Act, the school system processed applications of our foreign national employees and required that they pay certain fees upfront,” Hite wrote in a blog. “However, once we were told by the Department of Labor that the process we were using was incorrect, we immediately began paying the fees and we reimbursed the impacted employees.”

The program allows employers to hire foreign nationals to work temporarily in America so U.S. workers are not put at a disadvantage. According to the DOL, those hired in the program must be paid equal salary and benefits as those given to workers doing the same job in the same area.

“All employers, including school systems, are required to follow the law,” said Nancy J. Leppink, acting administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, in a statement. “That includes the legal duty to pay every teacher hired the full wages he or she is owed.”

The DOL said its investigators found that the school system reduced the wages of 1,044 foreign teachers hired under the program. PGCPS is now required to pay over $5.9 million in back pay and civil penalties and may be disbarred from filing new petitions, extension requests or requests for permanent residency for foreign nationals.

The stiff punishment was handed down because of what the DOL termed “the willful nature of some of the violations” because PGCPS “knew or acted in a reckless disregard for whether its actions were impermissible.”

That claim is disputed by Hite. He says the county has done everything the DOL has asked. He admits that the penalty could be damaging to an already tight budget.

“The finding on the “willful violator” status and potential debarment may have a devastating impact on PGCPS and its employees and the school system’s ability to continue to place a highly qualified teacher in every classroom,” Hite said in statement. “This determination penalizes a school system that has strived to obtain qualified teachers in the same or similar manner used by other school systems throughout the country.”

The school system did get some measure of good news. The Prince George’s County delegation in Annapolis were successful in fully funding PGCPS’ budget – bringing some semblance of relief to a county strapped for cash.

“They had tough choices to make, but because of their hard work and dedication, millions of dollars were restored to our budget,” Hite said. “While there is still more work to be done, this will prevent the need for additional cuts.”

 

George Barnette

Special to the AFRO