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Foreign students fight with Dickinson employer for wages

A summer in the United States has turned into an autumn of headaches for three J-1 visa program students in Dickinson.

Stevan Ilicin, Petar Karanovic and Tamara Kuncak, all from Serbia, were hoping to get their final paycheck from Badlands Cleaning Service before leaving Dickinson to travel the U.S. before heading back to Serbia once school started again.

"Stevan, Tamara and Petar have been working for Badlands Cleaning Service LLC and they are not being paid," said Troy Wood, the students' landlord who has been acting as an advocate on their behalf. "In the past, they've gotten their money, but it's always a struggle."

The three students, along with five others, came to the U.S. on non-immigrant visas to work and travel on their summer break. In addition to using the money they were earning to support themselves, they had been sending some back home to help their families.

The final paycheck was going to be their "fun money" for the trip through the states. Their travel expenses are already paid.

"It's already difficult enough to receive your money," Wood said. "Now they're going to have to try to do this from across the seas?"

Their boss at Badlands Cleaning Service, Jessica Huffstutler, had issued the checks early as a service because they were leaving Oct. 5, but told them the funds would not be available until their regular payday Oct. 11.

"They know that they were supposed to wait until Friday to cash their checks," Huffstutler said. "I cut them for them early so that they would have them because they were leaving Dickinson. I told them on several occasions -- and Troy, the gentleman that they stayed with -- that the money would be there by Friday, which is payday, after 3 o'clock."

The checks were dated Oct. 2.

"That's the day I printed them and got them ready for them," Huffstutler said.

Huffstutler said she had forgotten to postdate the checks to Oct. 11.

"If the money's not there, I can't give it to them," Huffstutler said.

Wood helped Ilicin, Karanovic and Kuncak file a claim for wages through the North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights. The papers were sent Friday and received by the Bismarck office on Monday.

"Our average days to closure last biennium for that same period was 76 days, from the day it was filed to us to the day it was closed," said Kathy Kulesa, Department of Labor human rights director. That statistic includes cases that needed to be resolved through the Attorney General's Office.

A case where checks were received but there was no money in the account is one of the easier claims to complete, Kulesa said.

"There would be new checks and, a lot of times, given the fact that it was an issue of NSF -- an employer's a lot less likely to issue an NSF check to the department," Kulesa said. "But often times we'll require a money order or something instead so we know it's good."

Huffstutler wasn't keen on issuing new checks.

"I've already given them checks. I don't know why I would have to give them more checks," Huffstutler said.

If the students would have deposited or cashed the checks at another bank or check cashing service, Huffstutler would have been charged a $30 non-sufficient funds fee for each check that overdrafted her account, Gate City Bank manager Tim Brumfield said. Because the students tried to cash them at his bank, which holds the account, they were simply unable to cash them.

"That issue would be between the person that wrote the check and the person that received the check," Brumfield said. "The bank would have nothing to do with that."

Wood got involved because he found Ilicin, Karanovic and Kuncak the job at Badlands Cleaning Service after their original U.S. employer, Sakura, didn't work out.

The three worked at Sakura from mid-June until early July, and then switched jobs. Ilicin continued to work at the restaurant and the cleaning company.

"This program is for students to work and have fun," Karanovic said. "So far, it's been very stressful. We're not having much fun."

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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