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Posted on Sun, Feb. 17, 2002

Magazine sales: No fun in sun
Teens, young adults often trapped in web of drugs, death

By Karen Balsley and Laura Emerson
The Journal Gazette

Across America, many teen-agers are encouraged to join magazine sales teams so they can see the world. What they sometimes find is a world of drinking, drugs and even death. Some of these door-to-door magazine sales groups attract wide-eyed teens or 20-something adults eager to travel and earn good money. Some groups recruit as they sell. Others advertise in newspapers.

Parent Watch, an organization that monitors the door-to-door sales industry in America, estimates 200 magazine sales groups employ 15,000 to 30,000 young adults.

Job interviews can take place in local motels. If the person accepts the job, he or she is asked to leave within a few hours or a day and join a team already in the field, according to the Better Business Bureau.

Once on the job, the employee may find that the work involves long hours, with early morning and late-night meetings where sales pitches are rehearsed. Meals and personal items must be bought with a personal allowance in some cases.

In several crews, employees' sales are credited to an account by the crew manager, who may deduct hotel expenses, canceled orders, fines or "misconduct" from the nightly allowance. Often employees end up in debt to the company, or so they are told, hindering their ability to leave, the bureau says.

Benjamin Brooks was recruited at a bar on his 18th birthday in Churchill, Tenn. The next day, he was selling magazines by day and filling an ice-filled tub with beer at night.

Two weeks later, he got into a drunken brawl in Fort Wayne that ended with one man dead and two people in jail. Brooks spent the next 15 months behind bars and is to be sentenced next month for involuntary manslaughter.

Troy Shaw, who was recruited in Findlay, Ohio, faces up to 65 years in prison at sentencing in March. Shaw was convicted last week of murder for the same beating for which Brooks was charged.

Breaking the law

Violation of state and federal solicitation and child labor laws are possible among the door-to-door magazine sales groups, labor officials say.

Labor law violations often come in the form of teen-agers working hours in excess of the law and not being compensated for work they do, said Pete Rimsans, a spokesman with the Indiana Department of Labor.

Someone selling magazines from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. should be eligible for minimum wage, plus be paid time and one-half for hours worked over 40 in a week, Rimsans said.

Jennifer Nesbit, 21, of Radcliff, Ky., says she often was forced to work well into the night - sometimes until midnight - to meet her daily sales quota during the three months she traveled with a magazine group in 1997.

Some days, she barely made enough money to buy food.

"There were a lot of customers who just felt sorry for me," Nesbit recalls. "They'd have us out in the rain."

Magazine industry representatives have said labor officials unfairly characterize their industry.

The National Field Selling Association, an organization formed in 1989 to promote direct sales as a professional method of doing business, seeks to improve the public image of direct sales.

A representative from the National Field Selling Association said she is "well aware" of the allegations of labor law violations that have been lodged against the industry. She referred further comment to the association's executive director, who did not return numerous phone calls placed last week.

Some magazine sales companies claim not to employ any of the people going door-to-door. Those companies say the salespeople are independent contractors, according to court documents and newspaper accounts.

New River Subscription Service, for example, says it never directly employed anyone charged with involvement in the beating death of Brett King, according to a response filed to a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of King's estate.

But Rimsans says there's a problem with the independent contractor argument. Often, the young adults selling magazines don't have the ability to select the cities they'll be in or what hours they'll be working, Rimsans said. Nor can they contract themselves out to other organizations for similar work.

"Calling them independent contractors doesn't make them so," Rimsans said. "If they're in an employer-employee relationship, there are certain laws and protections they're entitled to."

Good business?

Certain states have taken an active approach when dealing with the magazine sales industry.

"We literally ask them to leave our state," said Oklahoma State Labor Commissioner Brenda Reneau Wynn. "There were child labor and workers' comp issues, and we were getting complaints from parents.

"Looking into it, we found there was a lot more to it than was on the surface. The more we looked into it, the more we found there to be shady practices."

The Oklahoma Department of Labor became interested in the door-to-door sales industry after seven teen-age employees of an Oklahoma-based magazine group were killed and seven were injured in a March 1999 crash near Janesville, Wis., that involved a company van.

The driver, whose driving privileges had been suspended in Wisconsin because of his poor driving record, was trying to switch seats as the vehicle was moving after he saw a police car.

The company faced scrutiny for months after the crash and was cited with more than 100 violations by the Oklahoma Department of Labor. The U.S. Department of Labor fined the company more than $15,000 for child labor law violations.

New River Subscription Service has also been the subject of complaints.

The Better Business Bureau in western Virginia, where the company is based, has received complaints about New River Subscription Service from customers who never received magazines they ordered. New River generally responds to the complaints by explaining to customers that it takes up to 120 days for subscriptions to be processed or for refunds to be mailed, the bureau said.

No complaints have ever been filed against the company with the northeast Indiana branch of the Better Business Bureau.

At Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Va., New River Subscription Service and employees were banned from campus by the police department in spring of 1999 because students felt they were being harassed.

Parent Watch has also had complaints about New River Subscription Service, said Earline Williams, who helped form Parent Watch after her son joined a magazine sales crew that wouldn't let him leave.

The Virginia Department of Labor and Industry says it has had no child labor complaints or handled any child labor cases in relation to New River Subscription Service.

The company received solicitation permits from the department from the years 1994-95 through 2000-2001. Its application shows no employees under age of 18, a department spokeswoman said.

The owner of New River Subscription Service did not return several phone calls made by The Journal Gazette over a 1 1/2-week period.

More serious problems have been reported with other sales groups.

-Last month, magazine salesman Dwayne Taylor, 20, of Chicago, was found guilty of enticing and sexually assaulting a child younger than 15 in Douglas County, Colo.

He and fellow salesman Maurice Rogers were accused of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 13, after the girls let them inside for a drink of water.

-An employee of a magazine sales group based out of Michigan City stands accused of beating, raping and fatally stabbing a 66-year-old woman in her West Knoxville, Tenn., home Aug. 20. A lawsuit filed by her family in August contends the company knew Roger Broadway, 21, had prior convictions for robbery, car theft and using a stolen credit card and failed to supervise him properly.

-In May 2000, 18-year-old Matt Maxson, who was selling magazines for a Florida-based company, attacked and killed a 54-year-old woman in her upstate New York home with a piece of glass. He claimed he was hungry and planned to steal items from the home to sell for drugs or food.

-And in February 2000, Fort Wayne native Crystal Mahathy died in California while working for a magazine-sales group. Mahathy, 18, had called her family from Oregon Feb. 4, 2000, saying the crew leader wouldn't give her money to catch a Greyhound back to Fort Wayne.

The next day, while driving near Redding, Calif., a Ford Explorer carrying her and four others flipped off the side of a canyon road, tumbling several hundred feet before landing in a river. She and William Scott Tarwater died. Two others were injured.

Feeling trapped

Nesbit said she was 17 when she answered a newspaper ad promising "fun in the sun." That night, she was traveling with New River Subscription Service.

At first, "everything was cool," she said. "There was plenty of pot and alcohol," she said. The crew leader would buy a bag of marijuana or a keg of beer if the sales quota was met, Nesbit said.

But then, her 35-year-old crew leader decided she would be spending the evenings in his hotel room and having sex with him, and she couldn't talk to any of the other guys in the group.

"He used me as his female of the crew," she said.

They told her she could leave any time, but it wasn't that simple. Her leader would say she could leave as soon as she earned enough money for bus fare. Some days, she didn't earn enough for toiletries.

"I felt trapped," she said.

She had her mom wire money to her, so she could catch a bus. But her boss caught and stopped her and another crew member trying to leave. A week passed before she was able to try again.

That time, she left in the middle of the night, leaving most of her belongings behind.

Since then, she has offered help to any magazine salespeople who cross her doorstep, asking them if they need to eat, use her phone or arrange for a ride home.

Pat Mahathy, Crystal Mahathy's aunt, tries to discourage teen-agers from pursuing work with magazine sales groups such as the one her niece joined.

"I tell all my friends not to buy magazines from them," she said. "We still talk about it today, even when I hear someone even mention a magazine."

2001 fortwayne and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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