Immigrant health workers fear they can't escape contracts

Immigrants hired to yearslong contracts to fill thousands of U.S. healthcare roles said they are paid less than their co-workers, deceived about benefits such as free housing and, if they try to leave, threatened with tens of thousands in debt, NBC News reported June 4. 

More than a dozen immigrant healthcare employees told the news outlet they are in facilities with so few staff members they work unpaid overtime, cannot fully meet patients' needs and worry for their safety. They also face losing their immigration status if they quit. 

When they try to leave their contracts, employers can penalize and sue them, and some cases have reached more than $100,000, according to documents obtained by NBC News

"The workers are handcuffed by debt, unable to flee," Martina Vandenberg, president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, said in congressional testimony in May. 

The Labor Department deems these tactics illegal and mandates immigrant workers be paid a certain wage. In one case, the department sued a nurse staffing agency in March over claims that workers were underpaid; however, the issue is widespread while healthcare facilities struggle to fill staffing positions. 

"These nurses are brought over, they're promised the American dream and its a bait and switch," Magen Kellam, a Florida immigration lawyer who has represented dozens of foreign-educated nurses, told NBC News. "They get here and oftentimes the jobs are much different than the idea that they were sold. But that's where this debt bondage comes into play, where they can't leave even if the conditions are unsafe, and there's wage theft and exploitation of their work hours."

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