by Reid Maki, Coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition
For the last several years, the National Consumers League (NCL) has warned parents and teens that traveling sales crews are too dangerous for young workers. The discovery last week of the remains of Jennifer Hammond, who was only 18 when she disappeared from a sales crew six years ago, heightens our concern about the safety of traveling sales crews for teen workers.
Jennifer Hammond was one of those teenagers who knocks on your door and tries to sell you magazines. In August 2003, co-workers at Atlantic Circulation, Inc. dropped Hammond, a native of Littleton, Colorado, off in a mobile home park in Milton, New York. She failed to show up at the designated pickup spot two hours later. Six years later, a hunter found some bone fragments and teeth in a forest in Saratoga County, New York and forensic specialists identified the remains as Hammond’s. Local police are investigating the case as a homicide.
Each year, traveling sales has consistently appeared as one of NCL’s list of “Five Worst Jobs for Teens.” Going door-to-door is a risky proposition these days and when you add doing it in an unfamiliar town without parental supervision, the dangers add up quickly. After reviewing this industry and scores of problems we’ve heard about over the years, NCL came to the conclusion last spring that under no circumstances should a minor be allowed to travel as part of a sales crew.
Members of sales crews are vulnerable to assault and exploitation from customers, fellow crew members, and their superiors. Over the years, we’ve heard and read many stories of crew members who were beaten because they wanted to leave their crews or did not sell enough magazines.
On October 15th, the New York Times published a story about two young magazine salesman who were beaten with baseball bats and golf clubs in Lakewood, Washington simply because they wanted to quit. The police arrested six men in the attack.
Unscrupulous traveling sales companies charge young workers for expenses like rent and food that in some cases requires them to turn over all the money they earn from selling magazines or goods. When they try to quit or leave the crew, they are told they can’t. Earlier this summer, NCL received a phone call from a young man who quit his crew and found himself stranded 1,000 miles from home. He was broke and trying to hitch-hike home.
Disreputable companies have been known to seize young workers’ money, phone cards, and IDs and restrict their ability to call their parents. Drug use and underage drinking are not uncommon. Another New York Times report in 2007 found that crew members often make little money after expenses are deducted.
Teen sales crews are often crammed into poorly maintained, unsafe vans and driven by young distracted drivers. In November 2005, two teenagers were killed and seven were injured when the van they were riding in flipped near Phoenix, Arizona. A month earlier, 20-year-old, James Crawford, was ejected and killed from a van crash in Georgia. Eighteen young adults were crammed into the 15-passenger van when the driver fell asleep.
Unfortunately, Jennifer Hammond’s suspected murder is not the first associated with work in traveling sales crews: In November 2007, Tracie Anaya Jones, 19, a member of a traveling sales crew, was found dead of stab wounds in Memphis, Tennessee. Her killing remains unsolved and is featured on “America’s Most Wanted” Web site. In Rapid City, South Dakota in April 2004, a 41-year-old man was charged with murdering a 21-year-old woman who came to his home to sell magazines.
Clearly, these are extreme examples of what can go wrong, but there is ample evidence that there is much to be concerned about when one contemplates traveling sales work. Last month’s Times article on the beating of the two young salesmen, noted that Parent Watch, an industry watchdog group, is receiving about 10 emergency calls a day from crew members with problems.
In Wisconsin, a new law designed to protect young sales people will take effect next April. We’ll take a closer look at it in the days ahead….Stay tuned.