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STIFFED

by Jordan Green

By the end of its 2007 season it was apparent to most fans and employees of the Greensboro Revolution that the indoor football team would not be returning the following year. Only a handful of teams remained in the hobbled National Indoor Football League, and the local team’s owners were telling employees that they planned to sue the league.

“Our season ended in a disaster because of the league’s inability to fund the new teams,” wrote Nancy Pewonski, the wife of team owner Anthony Pewonski in an Aug. 9 e-mail to Sales Manager Tim Dunford and sales coordinator Forrest Sizemore. “Most of our away games were canceled due to league issues. Some of our home games were also a problem. We had to pay for the visiting teams in order to have a game.

By then Dunford in particular was frantic to get paid for his work. More than three months earlier he had told Marsha Moore, a senior investigator with the NC Wage and Hour Bureau that he was undergoing financial stress because of the team’s failure to pay him. After missing a paycheck in late March, Dunford recalled taking a $1,400 check he collected from a sponsorship sale to a restaurant and proposing that the Pewonskis sign it over to him, accept his resignation and call it even.

As an alternative, Dunford said, they suggested he drive down to Columbia, SC, where Anthony Pewonski owned another team, and meet them first thing in the morning to receive his pay after the couple collected on some debts. The Pewonskis never showed up and Dunford drove home to Charlotte.

“I didn’t like the idea of doing that, but what am I supposed to do, lock the door and hold them hostage?” asked Dunford, who is now 36. “I’m not a small guy. I played football in college. I’ve got some boxing training. But I’m not that kind of guy. I’m a firm believer that you get what you deserve in the end.”

At the time he received Nancy Pewonski’s e-mail, Dunford had an outstanding claim of $2,497 filed against the Revolution with the Wage and Hour Bureau, a unit of the NC Department of Labor. Pewonski told Dunford and Sizemore she had received calls from the bureau and planned to talk to a state investigator that day. She also indicated that she hoped the team could settle out of court with the league and then pay its employees.

“I promise both of you that you will be paid, and I remain committed to that promise,” Pewonski closed. “Unfortunately there is nothing I can do until the lawsuit is completed. I will keep you updated on our progress.”

Four days later, Moore mailed letters to Dunford and Sizemore stating that the bureau was unable to resolve their wage claims and was closing their cases. Case files indicate that on Aug. 3 and Aug. 8, Moore had called the team owner and left detailed messages about the two employees’ claims, and in both cases the Pewonskis gave no reply. Neither player has heard from the Pewonskis since, and staff at the Greensboro Coliseum, where the team played its home games, remains in the dark about the couple’s whereabouts to this day.

Dunford and Sizemore’s fate as stiffed employees repeated a cycle that made its first revolution in 2006 when the team began its first season with great fanfare. The Revolution’s public relations director, a graduate of Western Carolina University with a degree in sports management named Dee Mittman, filed a claim for $2,500 in unpaid wages for the last month of her employment with the team. In little more than a month, her case would be closed.

Mittman’s case file indicates that two letters were sent to Anthony Pewonski in August 2006. In the first, investigator Larissa Murdock informed him that the bureau would need a written response or documentation from the owner to disprove Mittman’s allegation. She warned that failure to respond “may result in further investigative activity to include a subpoena or an on-site investigation.” After receiving no response, Murdock followed up about two weeks later with a sterner warning: “It is illegal for anyone to interfere unduly with, hinder, or delay the Commissioner or any authorized representative in the performance of official duties, or refuse to give the Commissioner or representative any information for the enforcement of the Wage and Hour Act…. Your cooperation is greatly appreciated. Failure to respond to this request may result in further legal action.”

A week after Mittman’s case was closed without resolution in late August 2006, the bureau wrapped up its investigation of a claim by a fourth employee, Alan Davis, alleging he was owed $2,300.

By state law, anyone who refuses to cooperate with a Department of Labor investigation or provides false information is considered guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor. Such a crime can carry penalties ranging from 30 days of community service to 60 days in jail, said Judge Susan Bray, of Guilford County district court.

Remarks by the investigator assigned to Mittman’s case include an increasingly common refrain in the past two and a half years as the bureau has rushed to complete investigations and reduce its caseload: “Due to administrative procedures, case closed due to no response from employer. Not resolved letter sent.”

“Because of personnel turnover we couldn’t keep up with the inventory, so we modified to limited services procedures to where we were making two attempts to contact, and then making a decision of how to proceed,” said Jim Taylor, the state’s wage and hour administrator. “And if we didn’t get voluntary payment in most cases, it was referred back to the complainant.”

The Wage and Hour Bureau is stretched thin, Taylor said. Claims for nonpayment of wages are up at a time when longtime investigators are retiring, less experienced employees are seeking better pay in the private sector and the bureau is generally suffering from high turnover.

The General Assembly added one more investigative position in its most recent budget, bringing the total to 20. The bureau’s investigative ranks have been running at about 68 percent capacity, with three investigators undergoing training and two who were set to begin work on Monday and a sixth position. The bureau plans to interview for the sixth and final position this week, Taylor said.

Meanwhile the number of cases open more than doubled from 722 in fiscal year 2005 to 1,961 in fiscal year 2006. Caseload currently hovers at around 1,200. The cost incurred by the bureau’s limited-service mode has been a decline in the share of cases resolved with a factual determination from 62.2 to 55.8 percent from 2005 to 2007, while cases closed with no response from the employer skyrocketed from 1.9 to 16.1 percent over the same period.

The bureau is currently opting to not use an enforcement statute giving it the power to compel the production of payroll and other employment records from recalcitrant employers, making the warnings such as the one leveled at Anthony Pewonski by investigator Murdock little more than an empty threat. Nor does the bureau have sufficient staff to conduct onsite investigations.

“If we determine that an employer is hindering or delaying an investigation we can pursue criminal charges,” Taylor said. “We have done that in the past, but we’re not doing it at the time…. We’re not moving in that criminal-process arena because then it ties up the investigator in the criminal process instead of moving on and giving the complainant the ability to go to small claims court.”

Some claimants who have watched their employers ignore or string the bureau along with excuses wonder what is the point if the outcome is an unresolved case with a referral to small claims court.

“[Investigator Marsha Moore] told me: ‘We are going to attempt to make sure they pay you,'” Dunford recalled. “In other words, you’re not going to get paid. She said, ‘Legally, this is all we can do.’ I said, ‘Well, what good are you?’ It would make more sense to have my parents call and threaten them.”

Guilford County roughly mirrored the state as a whole in a review of wage and hour complaints filed against area employers in fiscal year 2007, with the bureau unable to resolve 18.5 percent of claims because of employers failing to respond to calls or provide requested documentation. YES! Weekly reviewed 65 of 329 total claims – or roughly a fifth – against Guilford employers.

The partial review identified a total of $17,172 in unresolved claims for nonpayment of wages in cases where records provided by the Wage and Hour Bureau reflected that employers did not return calls to investigators or did not provide requested documentation. Along with the Greensboro Revolution, other employers subject to unresolved claims include One Way Specialized, a Brown Summit trucking company; Pace Inc., a High Point mental health services provider; and Hearthside Homecare. Total amounts claimed ranged from $8,113 allegedly owed by the Revolution to $557 allegedly owed by Hearthside Homecare. In another instance, eight separate claims against Lattimore Superior Healthcare totaling $7,809 were left unresolved because the investigator could not locate the company owners Michelle Lattimore and Dexter Lattimore.

In investigation of Pace Inc. begun in May 2007 reflects that John Andrews Jr. complained that the company failed to pay wages for two weeks in September 2006. Andrews, who now works for another mental health agency, said recently that during the period for which he allegedly did receive pay for his work the company went under the name House of Care, and company President Harriett Reid changed the name to Pace Inc. the following September.

Reid emphatically denied Andrews’ claim in a written statement: “Pace Inc. did not open for business until December 15, 2006. Therefore, Mr. John Andrews could not have been employed with Pace Inc. in September of 2006…. House of Care Inc. and Pace Inc. are not affiliated in any way and are not partners. Ms. Harriett Reid was not responsible for his pay during his employment with House of Care Inc., as he is fully aware.”

A business named House of Care has been registered with the NC Corporations Division since July 2005, to Ogo a Emodi Onwuka with a Durham office address.

The Wage and Hour Bureau investigation did not resolve Andrews’ claim; the case file notes that an investigator left a voice mail message and then left a message with a program coordinator before closing the case without receiving a response.

In another case, a complaint against Wireless World of Greensboro alleging $500 in unpaid wages reflects that a district manager told the investigator that he would have to search company records to address the allegation made by former employee Douglas Gambrell. “I called the employer today, April 27, 2007 and no answer,” the investigator recorded. “This file is closed.”

Wireless World provided a check stub to YES! Weekly in the amount of $277 direct-deposited to Gambrell’s bank account on May 1, 2007. Gambrell could not be reached for comment. Tabitha Haizlip, identified by the Wage and Hour Bureau as a company vice president, said, “This employee worked for a day and a half. He’s one of those unreliable employees you sometimes get when you don’t do proper screening.”

The Wage and Hour Bureau’s investigation of Hearthside Homecare for allegedly failing to pay Kristie Baldwin $337 was opened in late March 2007. Baldwin, who is now 38, was supposed to earn $8.50 an hour plus an additional dollar per hour on weekends, she said, for in-home care services that could sometimes include 12-hour shifts adjusting a patient’s catheter and feeding tube and emptying her colostomy bag.

Baldwin said she is still owed $337, a week’s wages.

“One week my mother-in-law died, and one weekend I couldn’t work because I had to go to the funeral,” she said. “I called back and called back. And I was still going back because they still owed me wages and they never paid me. It was a mess. I think they had new people.”

Finally, she gave up.

“I couldn’t put no more time in it,” she said. “It was a while before I found another job. I just wanted to find me another job and put me back to work. They said they would rehire me, and I said, ‘No.’… It set me back a while. I don’t think my unemployment was half [my weekly wages], and you can’t live off that.”

Case files indicate that a state investigator spoke to the company’s payroll administrator about complaints by Baldwin and another employee, Cathy Hopkins. The payroll administrator, in turn, reportedly promised to “review the matter” and respond in four days. Two weeks later, the investigator left a phone message at the business and after receiving no response closed both cases.

A separate Wage and Hour Bureau case file identifies Roget De Percin Berendes as vice president of the company, and Hearthside Homecare is listed with the NC Corporations Division as having an office at 505 State St. in Greensboro. A person identifying himself as Roget told YES! Weekly last week by phone that he would have to search for records before addressing the employees’ claims.

Baldwin’s lack of faith in the state’s ability or will to enforce wage payment law was echoed by Clifton Faircloth, a 47-year-old hydraulic mechanic who lives in McLeansville. In comments laden with profanity, he dismissed the Wage and Hour Bureau as ineffective.

“The state don’t do shit,” he said. “They called my boss up and he made up a bunch of shit about me…. What the state does is they’ll talk to the employer and they never call you back. They automatically take what the employer says as the truth.”

The Wage and Hour Bureau opened an investigation into Faircloth’s claim that One Way Specialized, a Browns Summit trucking company, owed him $540 in mid-August 2006 and closed it less than a month later after owner Buddy Stinson replied that he had a counterclaim against the employee. An investigative activity record included in the case file indicates that Stinson told investigator Val Eucare in an Aug. 20 phone interview that “he is getting ready to take charges against employee for theft. Mr. Stinson to provide documentation to investigator regarding payment and charges filed.” In a second interview on Sept. 8 the owner reportedly told Eucare that he had, in fact, overpaid Faircloth, and notes reflect that Stinson “also still plans to take out theft charges against employee.”

No evidence of theft-related charges being filed against Faircloth in 2006 or 2007 could be located in Guilford County court records.

Reached on a mobile phone number during a trip to Florida last week, Stinson insisted that he did, in fact, file charges against Faircloth.

“He’s pulling time right now,” he said. “He stole one of our vehicles and crashed it too…. I’ve been knowing this guy for thirty-five years. He’s the finest man until he gets crack cocaine and alcohol in him, and then he’ll steal pennies off a dead man’s eyes.”

Faircloth was reached at home in McLeansville last week.

“He never took any charges out against me,” he said of his former employer. “That’s the bullshit story. The state just ate it up. Something he told them to throw their ass off.”

Similarly, a complainant identified as Lonnie Shoffner claimed $1,111 in unpaid wages from the trucking company. Case files indicate that Eucare spoke to Stinson on Sept. 8, 2006 about the claim. Stinson reportedly told Eucare that Shoffner had wrecked a truck three times and hadn’t turned in work logs. In response, Eucare informed Stinson that state law requires employers to obtain a signed letter of authorization from the employee before a deduction is made. The investigative activity indicates that Stinson “states he does have a written authorization for deductions and will provide documentation today.”

Three days later, the final entry of the investigative activity record contains this epitaph: “Case review. No response from employer regarding deductions. Due to current administrative procedures, not resolved letter sent to employee. No further action taken. Case closed.”

Less than a month after Faircloth and Shoffner’s cases were closed, the Wage and Hour Bureau opened a third investigation against One Way Specialized based on a claim filed by an employee identified as Steven Trombley for $1,000. The case file indicates that on Dec. 8, a state investigator conducted a phone interview with Stinson about the claim. The investigator reportedly faxed a letter dated Oct. 6 that had been lost in the mail to Stinson, and made two later attempts to reach the owner before closing the case. Curiously, the Wage and Hour Bureau’s letter to Trombley informing him that the agency was unable to resolve his wage claim is also dated Oct. 6.

“I think I have talked with someone and evidently it wasn’t a strong enough case to go forward,” Stinson said, when asked about the case. Trombley could not be reached for comment.

Explaining the disputed wages, Stinson said his company has a policy of deducting the cost of physical examinations, drug tests and application processing if an employee fails to stay on the job for a minimum of six months. He said he thought the company had a written contract to reflect that agreement.

“For me to hire Steve Trombley there’s a cost factor involved,” he said. “Number one, we advertised to get him in there. After we get him, there’s a processing fee. He has to go through a couple days of examinations. For a man to come in and in two weeks quit, our agreement is you stay six months or you have to pay that back.”

He added, “His problem was he had a girlfriend he was living with and he was trying to pay his home bills for his girlfriend and kids and pay his child support at the same time. He was trying to support two families. I don’t know a man that could do that, do you?”

In some cases, a thorough investigation would have vindicated the company and quickly weeded out frivolous and even mischievous claims. A 2007 claim for $2,681 in unpaid wages filed against Gearhart Aviation Service of Colfax, was closed after a letter was reportedly sent to the company’s owner and three attempts were made to reach him by phone. In some cases when complaints are filed at the Wage and Hour Bureau’s Raleigh call center, investigators call the complainant back to confirm the claim. The case file for a claim by William Griswold against Gearhart Aviation Service reflects no effort to do that.

Reached through a fax number included in his case file last week, Griswold said that was the first he had heard about a claim filed under his name. Griswold is currently employed as a ground support mechanic with Wam Aviation, a company that purchased Gearhart Aviation.

“The only thing I find humorous is when you look at the statements: They said they phoned a number and it was disconnected,” Griswold said. “They phoned another number and they got no answer. So they closed the case. That, to me, is weird.”

Taylor, the state’s wage and hour administrator, said he hopes that by April caseload will be reduced sufficiently for the agency to return to some type of full-service capability.

“I have to look at where we are and who we have,” he said. “There’s no way for me to control how many cases are filed.”

Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry expressed confidence in the bureau’s ability to improve its performance.

“I think you will see – time permitting and staff being able to be fully employed – more cases being actively pursued in a more timely basis as we get our inventory down to a good level,” she said, “which we’re on the way to doing.”

Of the 10 members of Guilford County’s state legislative delegation, the four House Democrats joined by Sen. Katie Dorsett expressed a general sentiment that the state should consider tightening wage and hour enforcement by allocating more funding for investigators, stiffening penalties against employers that refuse to cooperate with investigations, or some combination of the two. Laura Wiley, a House Republican from High Point, expressed concern about the increase in “no response” outcomes. Other members of the delegation agreed to review the findings of the YES! Weekly investigation, but chose not to comment.

“I find it troubling that complaints aren’t being fully investigated,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison. “It’s not just troubling; it’s unacceptable.

“This will probably precipitate some action at the legislature,” she added. “I don’t know that anyone knew that this was going on. I think that when you see that any agency isn’t adequately following up on its charge, generally that gets a reaction. If we’re not giving them enough money to hire the people they need to carry out the mandate we’ve given them, then that’s our fault as legislators.”

Rep. Alma Adams, who championed legislation that raised the state’s minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 in 2007, said the high numbers of unresolved cases suggest that the Wage and Hour Bureau does not have enough investigators in the field. She added that the state might consider creating a fund to compensate workers who are unable to recover unpaid wages from derelict employers. “Especially with what’s happening with the economy and companies going out of business, it’s not right to leave employees holding the bag.”

She also suggested that legislators review the state’s “illegal acts” statute to determine whether the penalty is adequate to induce employers to cooperate with state investigations.

“That’s not a good worker-friendly statute,” she said. “Maybe the penalty needs to be stiffened. It’s like stealing. I don’t know that that’s just a misdemeanor. You’ve got some people in jail for a long time for stealing…. I’m going to explore that statute. With the state of the economy right now, with people losing their homes, it’s not right that people are not getting paid for their work.”

Rep. Earl Jones said he was not convinced that merely allocating more money to hire investigators would close the gaps in wage payment enforcement.

“The main area that the Labor Department needs to be more vigilant about is making sure that employers comply with the law specifically as it pertains to providing information about complaints,” he said. “There may be a workload problem, but as far as not allowing employers to get away with not providing information, that’s very simple to address.”

He added, “What I’m seeing from the data that they’ve gathered is that if employers don’t comply with requests for information, you have nothing to pursue. Perhaps at the beginning of the process we probably need to move to stiff penalties and maybe criminal sanctions to give the department a little more teeth.”

Rep. Maggie Jeffus said she too had been unaware of the staffing challenges at the Wage and Hour Bureau and the corresponding jump in cases closed with no response from employers accused of not paying wages.

“It doesn’t appear they’re adequately funded, but I don’t understand why the Department of Labor didn’t ask for more than one person,” she said, adding, “I wasn’t aware of this until you brought it to my attention. When budget time comes around again I’ll be more aware.”

Tim Dunford, the Greensboro Revolution’s former sales manager, moved from Charlotte to Duplin County for a new job after the team folded, putting down stakes in a part of the state previously unfamiliar to him. On a recent Saturday, he was coaching the men’s tennis team at Mount Olive College in a home match against visiting Methodist University of Fayetteville. The sun shone brilliantly as Dunford’s players – many of them from Central and South America – dominated their adversaries in fierce competition on the tennis courts at a college founded by free-will Baptists amidst a flat expanse of soybean, cotton and cucumber fields in a town known as the “Pickle Capital” of the world.

Dunford said the salary he earns from a combined position at Mount Olive College as assistant men’s and women’s tennis coach and assistant sports information director falls short of the compensation package he was promised by the Revolution. He also teaches tennis at the River Landing Country Club in nearby Wallace and works the graveyard shift two nights a week at a Wilco truck stop on a stretch of Interstate 40 in Duplin County.

Dunford’s time with the Revolution put him in a financial hole from which he’s still digging out.

“I had to borrow money from my parents, and it’s not like they’re rich,” he said. “They actually paid my rent and car payment one month. When I got a job, I was just paying down my credit card debt. I cut off my cable because I didn’t need it. I left my internet [on] because I was looking for a job, but I cut that off once I got a job. I had to do a lot of stuff I normally shouldn’t have had to do. I blame myself.”

His credit rating hovered around 700 when he was hired by the Revolution, and he estimates it to be no more than 450 now. He said he maxed out three credit cards. One card held about $2,500 in debt when Dunford went to work for Anthony Pewonski and was maxed out at $5,000. Another card with a $1,000 spending limit that he reserved for emergencies as a substitute for insurance, was also maxed out. He added that he owes $950 on a third card with a $500 limit that he had reserved for what he called “emergency groceries.”

“If I wanted to get a loan to pay off these credit cards, I can’t do that without a cosigner,” he said. “And my parents have done so much for me that I’m not going to ask my parents to cosign. To be honest with you, I’m too proud to ask.”

Dunford said his faith in God has helped him get through his ordeal with the Revolution. He holds some confidence that hard work will get him back on his feet. The main lesson he takes away from his experience is to check out employers before starting the job.

“I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel as far as getting my money,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever hear from the Pewonskis. I don’t trust the Labor Department as far as I can throw them. It’s ironic that I’m paying taxes in the state of North Carolina and it’s going to them.”

As much as the financial hit has hurt, the blow to Dunford’s sense of self worth has been equally battered.

“I don’t see how these people can get away with destroying people’s lives,” he said. “It didn’t do much for my self esteem. Even though people recognize my abilities, I ask myself, ‘How I can be more than what I am now?’ It makes me want to go into politics. If I was the governor, the first thing I would do is change the board of labor so it would protect the citizens of North Carolina. If we can’t do that, then let’s just do away with it.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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