Health Care

Immigrant nurse with a work visa says employer treated her like an indentured servant

In this September 2017 file photo, a nurse walks through a darkened wing at a hospital in Puerto Rico. A nurse recruited to work in the U.S. says MedPro Healthcare Staffing, the South Florida company that paid for her travel and helped her get a green card, threatened to report her for immigration fraud and sued for $150,000 after she broke her contract.
In this September 2017 file photo, a nurse walks through a darkened wing at a hospital in Puerto Rico. A nurse recruited to work in the U.S. says MedPro Healthcare Staffing, the South Florida company that paid for her travel and helped her get a green card, threatened to report her for immigration fraud and sued for $150,000 after she broke her contract. NYT

Eden Selispara left a good job as a nurse in Abu Dhabi to work in the United States, lured by the promise of earning $26 an hour and “travel adventure” through MedPro Healthcare Staffing, a Sunrise company that recruits foreign medical professionals for assignments in hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities.

Two months after she arrived in South Florida, though, Selispara, 33, realized that her dream wasn’t all that MedPro had advertised.

The company had assigned her to live in a 3-bedroom apartment in Sunrise with eight other immigrant healthcare workers, prohibited her from applying for work elsewhere and forbade her from traveling farther than Miami, according to details of a lawsuit that MedPro filed against Selispara in Broward County circuit court.

During that time, Selispara received $2,500 from MedPro, which the company instructed her not to spend because she would need it to pay the relocation costs for her first job assignment, potentially in another state.

But during her two-month stay in Sunrise, Selispara said she did not receive a single job placement or interview, and therefore no salary. Her savings dwindling, and unable to send money to family back home in her native Philippines, Selispara left Sunrise in March 2017 and found work on her own as an emergency room nurse at a hospital in Houston.

“All she ever really wanted was to come to this country and make money,” said Adam Pulver, an attorney with the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, who defended Selispara along with a Florida attorney, Janet Varnell, against the MedPro lawsuit. “She loves working as a nurse.”

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Eden Selispara, 33, of the Philippines, was recruited to work as a nurse in the United States by MedPro Healthcare Staffing, a Florida company that paid for her travel and helped her get a green card in exchange for a three-year commitment to work for MedPro. When she broke her commitment, Selispara says MedPro threatened to report her for immigration fraud. The company sued her for $150,000.

Soon after Selispara landed a job on her own in Houston, though, her legal problems began. Under the terms of her contract with MedPro, Selispara had agreed to work for the company for three years. MedPro planned to profit from her employment by pocketing the difference between Selispara’s hourly wages and the amount the company charges for placing nurses at medical facilities.

After Selispara left for Texas, MedPro sued her for $156,000. But Pulver said the company didn’t just try to recoup its projected losses. He says MedPro also threatened to report Selispara to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for immigration fraud.

“That’s scary,” Pulver said, “and that alone can force you to do things that you wouldn’t want to do. ... No one should feel that they owe a company for years of their life to work, or in this case even to not work and wait forever on the chance that they would get her a job.”

That’s not how MedPro sees it. Cristy Caserta, corporate attorney for MedPro, said in an email response to questions that Selispara’s situation was “atypical.”

“We regret that her experience was not a positive one,” said Caserta, who did not say how much MedPro invested in preparing Selispara to work in the United States or how much the company expected to earn from her employment.

“We worked with Ms. Selispara for years, at MedPro’s expense, to get her ready to work in the U.S.,” Caserta said. “The fact is that Ms. Selispara received her permanent residence (green card) through MedPro but did not remain employed with MedPro.”

Foreign healthcare workers recruited from overseas to work in the United States typically have a positive experience, said Mukul Bakhshi, director of the Alliance for Ethical International Recruitment Practices, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit. But those who encounter intimidation, exploitation or physical violence can find themselves on their own.

“It’s a really tough sector because people are afraid to talk,” said Bakhshi, who first heard about Selispara’s case from friends and referred her to Public Citizen for help. “They don’t really have good resources in terms of who to complain to. They’re very fearful of losing their income or losing their immigration status.”

Pulver said MedPro had no right to threaten Selispara that they would report her for immigration fraud, and that her work visa is “portable” as long as she’s working in the nursing field.

About 5,400 foreign healthcare professionals entered the U.S. in 2017, according to VisaScreen, a screening service for healthcare professionals seeking an occupational visa to work in the United States. Most of those professionals are nurses, Bakhshi said, who are in demand due to a nursing shortage.

Though Selispara’s case represents the experience of a minority of foreign healthcare workers, Bakhshi said the contractual commitment to work for an employer for a fixed time in exchange for transportation to the United States, housing and other assistance can make workers feel like a company’s personal property.

“It’s not that different from indentured servants in the 1700s,” Bakhshi said, though he added that foreign healthcare workers would be hard pressed to pay for their own transportation, navigate the immigration system and land a job in the United States all on their own.

But he added that intimidation tactics, like threatening to report a foreign worker legally in the United States, is a common tactic because it works.

“People are more scared about accessing avenues for justice,” he said. “Just the general tenor around immigration right now is kind of scary.”

MedPro settled the lawsuit this week, and admitted no wrongdoing. Caserta denied Selispara’s allegations of forced labor and human trafficking made in a counter claim the nurse filed in response to the company’s lawsuit. But as part of the settlement, MedPro agreed to revise employment contracts and adopt new policies that will better explain the commitment expected from foreign recruits.

The company also agreed to ease the restrictions it places on overseas workers while they’re in Florida awaiting a job assignment, and to compensate them for that time. MedPro will no longer use the threat of lawsuits or reporting foreign workers to immigration authorities in order to coerce them into staying, Pulver said.

And when a worker does break a contract with MedPro, the company has agreed to cap the amount it demands in repayment at $40,000 and to offer the worker a payment plan rather than immediate restitution as the company had sought from Selispara, Pulver said.

“It basically minimizes the chances that litigation or financial demands are used to coerce people to continue working for an employer they don’t want to,” he said.

Pulver said a typical MedPro contract for placing a foreign nurse will charge the medical facility about $60 per hour while the nurse is paid $26 per hour.

Caserta said MedPro takes a big risk recruiting foreign nurses, noting that the company’s investment is almost entirely “front-loaded.”

“We don’t generate any revenue until the healthcare professional is working with us in the U.S.,” she said.

Pulver said MedPro typically brings 500 to 600 foreign healthcare workers — mostly nurses, but also therapists and medical technicians from Asia, Europe and the Caribbean — each year to the United States. Suing those who break their contracts has been standard operating procedure for the company.

A search of the Broward County clerk of courts website found 79 cases dating back to November 2007 in which MedPro filed suit against individuals for breach of contract.

Caserta said MedPro is just enforcing contracts in order to protect its investments.

“This is a complex and costly business with an uncertain financial return,” she said. “For that reason, it is critical that MedPro can count on employees honoring the employment commitment that they make.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that MedPro Healthcare Staffing ordered Eden Selispara to surrender her green card.