Amanda Pampuro

ASPEN (CN) — A former Aspen hotel intern filed a class action against Marriott International accusing it of abusing the J-1 visa internship program to exploit foreign workers for low-wage menial work.

Daniel Esteban Camas Lopez studied culinary arts at Universidad Autonoma de Queretaro in Mexico then came to Colorado in 2020 on a J-1 visa in hopes of furthering his education. In 2021, the hotel he was working for closed, and Lopez was transferred to intern at the Marriot-owned St. Regis, a Gilded Age manor turned luxury hotel adjacent to Aspen Mountain ski lifts.

But instead of learning haute cuisine and perfecting his craft, Lopez said he was pushed into 72-hour workweeks and exploited as cheap labor doing work any American could have done.

“Contrary to law, defendant used J-1 visa interns as ‘substitutes for ordinary employment or work purposes’ at St. Regis,” according to the 13-page lawsuit filed Friday in the District Court for Pitkin County.

As part of the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961, the J-1 visa invites interns into the U.S. for a “educational and cultural exchange, promising hands on experience to interns with degrees." Visa-holders are typically tied to the company that sponsored them, and therefore cannot seek higher pay or better work conditions.

Lopez paid $3,900 to participate in the program sponsored by Alliance Abroad Group. Interns were charged additional fees if they left the program early.

Lopez made $14 an hour, but the hotel deducted $800 per month for “a bed in a shared room in a dilapidated house shared with other J-1 interns,” according to the complaint.

When he arrived at St. Regis, Lopez was promised guided mentoring in food preparation and presentation, including scheduled rotations through the saucier, garde manger, and the hot line. The plan promised a minimum of 32 hours instruction each week and a maximum of 40.

Instead of learning from the executive chef however, Lopez spent his internship working alongside other J-1 interns on the line. When other interns worked banquets, Lopez covered multiple stations — and his schedule quickly grew into a 72-hour-a-week regimen, made up of 12-hour shifts, six days a week.

And despite the long hours, Lopez says he “did not receive the training or experience promised by the plan.”

"Throughout plaintiff’s time at St. Regis, he felt that any American worker could fill his role," the lawsuit said. "He noticed that he was simply providing cheap labor for the severely understaffed kitchen.”

Other St. Regis’ interns served food and performed butler services, Lopez says.

Under the Colorado Consumer Protection Act, Lopez claims Marriott ran fraudulent internships and a human trafficking scheme. He asks the court to award damages and attorney’s fees to the class.

Lopez is represented by Towards Justice attorney Alexander Hood.

Representatives from Marriott International did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The case has been assigned to Ninth Judicial District Judge Christopher Seldin, who was appointed by Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper.