$121K penalties issued against Indy staffing co.

INDIANAPOLIS - The United States Department of Labor and an administrative law judge are taking action against Indianapolis staffing company Access Therapies following a Call 6 Investigation into the company's practices, Call 6 Investigator Kara Kenney reported.

Under terms of a court order, Access Therapies must pay $81,454 in civil money penalties and $39,946 in back wages to six physical therapists for violations of the H-1B provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Access Therapies has an office on West 71st Street in Indianapolis, and according to its website, it provides health care staffing to hospitals, schools and other facilities using H-1B visa sponsorships to hire workers from India, the Philippines and other foreign countries.

The H-1B program allows employers to hire foreign workers temporarily in the U.S. on a nonimmigrant basis in specialty occupations.

Access Therapies will be debarred from participation in the H-1B program for a one-year period, according to the federal government.

"The rules governing the employment of nonimmigrant workers in specialty occupations are specific and must be followed completely. Failing to do so denies qualified workers an opportunity for meaningful employment in the American economy," said Thomas Gauza, district director for the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division in Chicago. "This case shows that the department will not hesitate to bring legal action against employers that continue to short their employees and violate the law."

An investigation by the Wage and Hour Division found the company misrepresented facts on its application when petitioning for and employing H-1B nonimmigrant workers.

As a result, the division issued the company a determination letter seeking the back wages owed.

According to the Department of Labor, Access Therapies contested those findings and requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, who issued the order that required the company to pay back wages, penalties and interest, and debarred it from the H-1B program for a one-year period.

The federal investigation also found employees were due back wages, because they were not compensated with the required prevailing wages for productive work time or for pre-assignment and post-assignment time, as required.

A Department of Labor spokesperson said Access Therapies failed to withhold applicable employment taxes, such as payments to Medicare, FICA and federal and state income tax.

Call 6 Investigator Kara Kenney contacted attorneys for Access Therapies Monday morning but has yet to receive a response.

Access Therapies is also facing a federal lawsuit accusing it of abusing legal foreign workers and violating federal labor laws.

According to court documents, Access Therapies engaged in witness tampering, calling H-1B employee witnesses and telling them to ignore a court-ordered email production request.

The lawsuit, filed by former Access Therapies worker Rituraj Singh Panwar, also lists manager Ramon Villegas and affiliates RN Staff Inc., Rehability Care as defendants.

According to the federal lawsuit, Access Therapies does not pay its employees prevailing wages as required by law.

Panwar's attorneys allege Access Therapies engaged in a "fraudulent enterprise" and violated federal anti-trafficking and forced labor laws as well as Indiana's state wage laws.

Indianapolis attorney Gary Welsh represents several foreign workers who are being sued by Access Therapies for breach of contract.

He thinks the U.S. Department of Labor took too long to act.

"The Department should be ashamed of itself," Welsh wrote in an email Monday to RTV6. "Because the Department waited so long to act, many employees with pending complaints against the Department had already entered into settlement agreements to end the litigation Access Therapies brought against them in Marion County courts, which were then used to bar them from recovering under federal law.

"Access Therapies is simply using its affiliated company, RN Staff with the same owners and employees, to file new H-1B petitions so the one-year time bar won't stop them from doing business in any way."

U.S. Department of Labor spokesman Scott Allen told Kenney investigations take time, and it was not immediately clear if Access Therapies could participate in the H-1B program under a different name, such as RN Staff.

The Call 6 Investigators examined court records and found dozens of pending cases in Marion County in which Access Therapies is listed as the plaintiff.

"The exploitation of these foreign workers amounts to a modern day version of indentured servitude," said Welsh in a 2013 interview with Kenney.

In 2013, the Call 6 Investigators stopped by Access Therapies office on West 71st Street.
Manager Ramon Villegas, who is named in the federal lawsuit, told RTV6 the allegations are not true and deferred to the company's attorney.

A 2010 letter from the U.S. Department of Labor to Access Therapies said the company failed to pay wages as required and cooperate with their investigation.

"Your firm owes back wages in the amount of $1,012,306.08 to fifty-three H-1B nonimmigrants," read the letter. "Your firm is liable for any ongoing violations."

It was not immediately clear Monday whether Access Therapies had paid the 2010 penalties.

Follow Kara Kenney on Twitter: @karakenney6 | Facebook: KaraKenneyNews

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