The Company Town – A Century Later

Long time readers may recall that I recently moved in with my girlfriend – she of the cheapest rent in all of LA. Actually, the guy downstairs pays even less… either one day the guy who owns the building will wake up from a coma, or we’ll find out there’s toxic waste stored in the floorboards, but so far so good… except for the cats – they don’t all getting along.

The new (for me, anyway) pad is in Silver Lake, kind of a bohemian area close to downtown. It’s a great place to jog… lots of hills, and lots of staircases. (Aside – as an early riser, I’ve learned that in LA, even moving a few miles means you see a different variety of wildlife if you jog before dawn – this area seems to favor skunks for whatever reason.)

Lately, there’s been a different variety of critter coming around. The last three days in a row, we’ve had teenagers stop at our door. They all work for the same organization, and have the same pitch… they’re selling magazines and trying to win some sort of a contest. The last couple of days I talked to whoever knocked, and ended up giving them money to get off the porch and leave me alone so I could get back to work to make some money to give it to people who knock on the front door. (Wait… that can’t possibly be right.)

My girlfriend – she’s more the scrappy small business type than I – got disgusted at how easily I was pushed over and decided that if someone knocked today, she’d talk to them. And sure enough, someone stopped by.

Anyway, she listened to the boy’s spiel, and then starting asking questions. It seems this particular kid was from someplace in North Carolina – the company takes these kids from town to town. They’re dropped off in a neighborhood and told to sell. (It seems kind of unsafe to me.) Judging from the fact that they’ve hit our apartment 3 times in 3 days, they haven’t planned this all that well either. Anyway, each kid gets a percentage of what he/she sell, and the company puts their money away in a bank account for them until they leave the company. (They stay for the length of one or more “contests.”) The owner of the company – who drops them all off in the morning – told them he started this way and is now a multi-millionaire, and clearly the kids dream of doing the same.

Anyway, it turns out the kid who showed up today (and I assume he’s typical) is working from 9 to 9 six days a week, not counting the morning meeting or pep talk or whatever it was called. That’s 12 hours a day… He gets $20 a day for food (which may or may not be coming out of his sales – he wasn’t sure) and he’s making about $300 a week for the sales he makes. Assuming he’s not being docked for his $20 a day food bill (which I suspect he actually is), that means he’s receiving $140 a week for food, plus $300 a week for sales commission, or a total of $440 a week. Divide that by 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, and he’s making $6.11 an hour. I believe minimum wage in California is $7.50 an hour, with premium pay required for working more than 8 hours in one day or at a stretch.

The new company town travels. And it takes advantage of kids… it puts them in unsafe conditions, makes it hard for them to leave (leave at the end of the contest and supposedly the company pays your fare home, but if you leave before you pay your own fare home, and I would bet things are worked out so that no kid ever works near home), underpays them, and it keeps them going on promises of wealth that I would strongly suspect don’t materialize. I wouldn’t be surprised if at the end of the process, each kid finds he owes the company money. The $20 a day for meals will come out of the kid’s sales, and I’m sure housing and transportation from one city to another costs money. Its easy to say the kids should know better – perhaps these kids should have paid more attention in school, but that doesn’t excuse taking advantage of them.

Anyway, my girlfriend explained all this to the boy, helped him figure out what he’s making per hour (in the best case scenario), and then told him to get himself on a bus home and find another job. (LA is not the place for a naïve teenager far from home – if he stays around here he’ll be turning tricks on Sunset in 3 months, if he’s lucky.) She also handed him some money. What a pushover.