PROVINCETOWN — Four Bulgarian college students here on the U.S. State Dept.’s J-1 Summer Work Travel program spent nearly their entire season in Provincetown searching for help with an abusive landlord.
Provincetown’s police department repeatedly told them and the employers who advocated for them that their allegations, which included wage theft, assault, destruction of property, and illegal entry into their rental unit, were a “landlord-tenant issue” and therefore a civil matter, to be addressed in Orleans District Court.
The students, all in their early 20s, did not go to court, although they did seek help from Provincetown’s leaders outside law enforcement, including the town’s diversity, equity, and inclusion director and the health director.
After almost eight weeks of escalating incidents and three trips to the police dept., their landlord and side-gig employer, Paul Schofield, was arrested when Health Director Lezli Rowell witnessed him assaulting one of the students during an inspection of their rental unit.
Provincetown’s board of health paid to put the students up in safe accommodations in a hotel for the last 16 days of their stay. The town is still seeking to recover the $3,111 the board spent on those hotel rooms from Schofield and his husband, Dr. Andrew Jorgensen, Assistant Town Manager Dan Riviello confirmed this week.
Who Can Help?
These events, which the Independent first reported on Oct. 26, point to the lack of an ombudsman dedicated to Cape Cod’s foreign workers, said Steve Katsurinis, a business owner and lawyer who serves on the Provincetown Board of Health.
“It’s a real challenge that we don’t have an office in town government or in state government where guest workers can go and get their issues addressed,” Katsurinis said.
“The county government is really the right size to hire one person to work full-time on this,” he added. “When you consider how many foreign workers there are here, it would behoove us to try and help them.”
Before Covid, there were 5,000 J-1 students working on Cape Cod in the summers, said Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce CEO Paul Niedzwiecki — 5 percent of the entire nation’s Summer Work Travel program participants.
There were 115,000 working people on Cape Cod in July 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — so J-1 students were 4.3 percent of the county’s workforce that month.
“It shows you how heavily reliant we were” on J-1s, Niedzwiecki said.
The program was essentially shut down during Covid, when U.S. embassies overseas stopped doing visa interviews for J-1 students. By the summer of 2022, there were just over 2,000 J-1 students on Cape Cod, and this year there were 2,700, Niedzwiecki said.
That slow rebound was a big enough worry that the state legislature wrote an earmark for the Cape’s chamber of commerce to hire a J-1 housing specialist to help ensure that the lack of housing for summer workers on Cape Cod didn’t “leave a permanent 3,000-person hole in the seasonal workforce,” Niedzwiecki said.
Christina Arabadzhieva, who first came to Cape Cod as a J-1 student from Bulgaria more than 20 years ago, was hired this spring to help recruit host families to house J-1 students in their homes. The chamber is now working on another grant application that would focus on converting underused hotels and motels into summer worker housing.
There is no one in county government specifically dedicated to helping foreign workers, Niedzwiecki said. But in addition to her work finding host families, Arabadzhieva has found herself fielding calls from students who need help during their time here.
“People do call Christina, and we try to do whatever we can,” Niedzwiecki said. “I know she helped a couple of students transition from one job to another, which involves a discussion with their sponsoring agencies. And sometimes it’s the housing itself that’s the problem.
“We put this program together quickly,” Niedzwiecki added, “but it’s already bearing fruit.” The chamber will look for a permanent funding source in years to come, he said.
Town Officials Try to Help
One of the abused students’ employers suggested they contact Donna Walker, director of Provincetown’s newly created office of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Walker took that position in April 2022; the job was created through a citizens petition at town meeting in May 2021.
“My office doesn’t play a direct role in issues like this,” Walker said, referring to employer-employee and tenant-landlord disputes.
Nonetheless, “as they shared their story with me, it became clear that the best way I could help was to research what resources might be available,” she said. She called Arabadzhieva and colleagues in town hall and gave the students advice on contacting their program sponsors, regulators, and potential sources of free legal help.
The town has put some of that research on a new page for J-1 and H-2B workers on its website, Walker said. It includes links to the state attorney general’s office, the Better Business Bureau, an oversight office in the State Dept., and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Take It to Court
The four students did not take the police department’s advice to go to Orleans District Court, they told the Independent. Schofield owed each of them almost $2,000 for work they had done at his properties, they said.
The small claims court in Orleans could perhaps have helped with that specific issue, Katsurinis said. Counsel is not required there — instead, plaintiffs write out their claims on a simple form, and a clerk magistrate can summon the opposing party to a hearing within 21 days, he said.
Small claims court can only adjudicate financial matters up to $7,000, however, and not the threats and assaults that the students were also reporting.
The state attorney general’s Fair Labor Division has much stronger powers to investigate claims of unpaid wages, Katsurinis said. “My understanding is if they get a complaint, the first thing they do is a three-month audit,” in which the business has to produce three months’ worth of records of all their payments to every employee.
“The problem is, I don’t know that the employee is going to get paid anytime soon through that process,” Katsurinis said. “State government grinds really slowly.”
Katsurinis said he was glad that the town’s DEI director had been involved.
“People who are disempowered because they’re not citizens and they’re only here for three months — that’s exactly the kind of people that an office like that should exist to help,” Katsurinis said. “She doesn’t have the power to mandate activity, but she can get people to sit down and try to find solutions.”
Most towns don’t have a DEI director, though. Arabadzhieva’s official title is workforce housing manager; helping students through a crisis is not in her job description either.
“An ombudsman at the county or state level would be huge, and could make a big difference,” Katsurinis said. “These kids aren’t here to be taken advantage of.”