PALESTINE — Michael Bates thought he was doing a good thing for himself and his country when he took a job with DynCorp International in July 2005 as a security guard at a U.S. military base in Qatar.
A DynCorp solicitation was enticing. It implied a base salary and living expenses totaling $51,000 a year, plus opportunities to earn lots of overtime, Bates says. Based on the ad, Bates says he believed that he could earn close to $70,000.
It sounded like a good deal to Bates, laid off from a $58,000-a-year job as an imaging technician with FSI International, an Allen company involved in chip manufacturing.
"If you're unemployed, it's very attractive," Bates said. "You figure you can live off your per diem and save your whole paycheck."
Bates, 49, describes himself as patriotic, idealistic, and a touch naive. He had another motivation besides money. He was too old to join the military, but wanted to contribute to the war on terrorism.
"I love my country," Bates said. "I'm doing the right thing by participating in the war effort."
Now, after working for two years in Qatar and ultimately suing DynCorp over its promises, Bates says he and others were misled.
The company, Bates says, juggled pay rates and conditions. "The more you work, the less you get paid per hour." In practice, Bates says the $51,000 figure was a cap on earnings.
Bates, who returned to the U.S. a year ago and now works as a guard in Palestine in East Texas, wasn't the only DynCorp employee in Qatar who felt shortchanged. Several, including Bates, filed suit against the company in Qatar, claiming that they were paid less than promised. The Star-Telegram contacted three others by phone or e-mail who had the same complaints.
Douglas Ebner, a DynCorp spokesman, said in an e-mail response that the allegations "are completely without merit. The fact is that of seven similar lawsuits filed against us in Qatar, all seven have now been resolved with no finding of fault or liability against DynCorp International."
DynCorp is based in Falls Church, Va., and has major operations based at Alliance Airport in Fort Worth. The company provides services worldwide for the U.S. military and State Department and recruits personnel for many of those jobs out of Fort Worth.
In addition to supplying civilian security guards for bases, the company has contracts to train police and military in Afghanistan and Iraq, eradicates opium crops in Afghanistan and cocaine in Iraq, and ferries supplies to U.S. forces.
Excellent job reviews
Bates doesn't seem to have been a troublesome or misfit employee.
He has letters from civilian supervisors and U.S. military officers that give him excellent reviews for his performance on the job at Camp As Sayliyah, the big U.S. base outside Doha, Qatar.
James Woods, who supervised Bates when they both worked for FSI, said Bates was "the kind of guy every employer would want to have on his payroll. Most of the time he was there 30 minutes early. He made sure he was ready for the day's business."
After he applied to DynCorp, Bates says he received a security clearance application and a letter that contained relatively few details. Once he signed, he was told, an employment contract would be sent to him and he would have two weeks before reporting.
A day later, Bates says he got a call from DynCorp.
"They told me we need you bad," he said. "They said if I took the flight out on Saturday, my contract would be waiting for me."
Two days later, Bates left for Doha via airline flights that took him from Tyler to Dallas/Fort Worth, London and Bahrain.
He reported as directed. There was no employment contract the first day in Qatar or the next. After three days, a contract was presented.
"When I saw the contract," Bates said, "I said, 'Oh, the old bait-and-switch trick.'"
Bates provided a copy of the contract to the Star-Telegram. It called for a base salary of $12 an hour, plus the daily living allowance and overtime required by Qatari law.
The overtime terms are not spelled out in the contract. A separate document shows the $51,000 figure includes all compensation, including overtime, the airline ticket to Qatar, and a bonus for completing a year's work.
Bates' pay records seem to show that the company lived up to the terms of the contract in terms of the hourly pay. But Bates says there were disputes over what hours were counted and what overtime rates should be paid.
It wasn't just the financial terms that surprised Bates. Initially the company-provided housing was something less than the clean, comfortable condos pictured in DynCorp's presentation.
Bates says the room he and three other recruits were initially assigned initially was full of mold and rust. "They show you a hotel [overlooking] the beach," he said. "I didn't expect that, but I did expect something a little nicer."
Bates says he was immediately alarmed by the differences between the wages he believed that DynCorp had implied and what he was actually earning, but he stuck it out.
When he asked questions, Bates said, he was told: "'If you don't like it, leave.' It's a little friendlier the first time you ask. The second time, it goes downhill fast."
Bates and some of the other American security guards persisted. They filed suit in Qatari court, claiming DynCorp was violating the local labor laws under which they were hired.
Bates kept working. He signed on for a second year so he could stay in country to pursue the lawsuit and, he said, "I wasn't fed up with DynCorp."
The second contract included a change in the terms. It specified a base salary, rather than an hourly rate, plus overtime.
Payroll records submitted to the court by DynCorp for that year show hourly pay rates that often differed from paycheck to paycheck. Some pay rates were based on a 48-hour regular workweek, others on a 56-hour workweek.
DynCorp spokesman Ebner said the security guard's pay rates are based on Qatari labor law, which "requires quite a number of different pay rates" depending on the time of day, holidays, and the Islamic holy period of Ramadan.
Ebner said that while Bates and others did not see the employment contract before arriving in Qatar, "they were well-acquainted with the wages and benefits ... The figure of $50,000-plus was in fact the overall total of base pay, end-of-contract bonus, and expected overtime, and this was carefully explained to prospective employees.
"We regret that some misunderstandings clearly did occur, and have instituted a more thorough documentation and acknowledgement process for such information prior to the prospective employee's departure from the U.S.," Ebner said.
By the time he got fed up, Bates says quitting was problematic based on the experience of one of his colleagues.
Marcos Manuel, like Bates, worked a full year and joined in the lawsuit. After the contract expired, Manuel took three months before returning to Qatar and signing a new one-year contract. He worked from October 2006 until April 2007, when he was terminated.
"I was terminated for poor job performance, supposedly," said Manuel, a private investigator in Memphis. "But Army records and DynCorp evaluations showed I was doing a good job."
Manuel says he was asked to sign documents releasing the company from any liability and refused. Manuel said the company refused to return his passport, which employees surrender upon going to work, and gave it to Qatari law enforcement claiming that as an unemployed foreigner, he was breaking local law by staying in the country.
Manuel said he was trying to stay in the country to pursue the lawsuit and turned to the State Department to get his passport back.
Ebner says Manuel's story is "simply not true. He was terminated for his behavior at the workplace, including disruptive behavior and insubordination. His decision to file a lawsuit is frankly irrelevant to his work performance and to his termination from his employment."
Ebner said that Qatari law required DynCorp to turn over Manuel's passport, and that the company made "no representation" to Qatari authorities about his activities.
Manuel "was in frequent contact" with DynCorp officials after quitting, Ebner said, "and was repeatedly informed that DI would do everything in its power to assist him whenever he chose to leave the country."
Pursuing the legal challenge, Bates said the Qatari court system proved even slower and more tangled than in the U.S. He and other workers took their rare days off to appear.
The first time a hearing was scheduled, Bates said, DynCorp "didn't show up. They didn't show up for the second hearing. They didn't show up for the third hearing."
Eventually, DynCorp seems to have prevailed in court. Ebner says the courts ruled in the company's favor in several cases and dismissed others, including that of Bates and Manuel, when the employees failed to show up for follow-up court dates — after they had left the country.
DynCorp's "attorneys did what they were supposed to and dragged it out and dragged it out," Bates said. "I wasn't going to hire an attorney over there I didn't trust."
Bates is working as a guard at the Anderson County Jail in Palestine for $10 an hour while looking for better-paying work in manufacturing or security.
And while didn't make the kind of money he was expecting to in Qatar, there was one unexpected bonus.
He met his wife, Maria, a Filipino who was also working there for a private contractor.