Traveling Sales Crews: The Perils of Life on the Road – National Consumers League

By Reid Maki, Child Labor Coalition Coordinator, and Lauren Perez, NCL Communications Intern

Next in our five-part series of worst teen jobs is traveling youth crews who sell items—often magazine subscriptions— door-to-door.

When young workers leave the safety of home, family, and friends and hit the open road bad things can happen. Add into the mix selling door-to-door to strangers in unknown neighborhoods and the job can become quite dangerous.

In February 21, 2007 New York Times article about the industry told the story of one young recent high school graduate, Jonathan Pope, who spent six months with a magazine sales crew working 10 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. His pay was often withheld and he was forced to get by on a meager $10-a-day food stipend much of the time. He witnessed co-workers being beaten by his managers and, when he asked to leave, his manager left him at a train station 1,000 miles from home with $17 cash.

According to Dan Smith, a representative of the National Field Selling Association quoted in the article, at any given time about 2,500 young people aged 18-to-24 years old are selling magazines door-to-door in these traveling crews.

The National Consumers League recently received a call from one stranded young seller. Ricky, 24, said he’d been traveling with crews since he was 18. He’d recently been let go because a crew leader became angry with him. With no money, Ricky was trying to hitch hike 1,000 miles home.

Although it’s not an everyday occurrence, Ricky said he has also witnessed sellers get beaten because crew leaders were unhappy with their performance. “When you’re not getting your sales and not making your quota, the managers get really mad at you,” he said. I’ve seen someone “get jumped straight up and get beat down,” he said, noting that he has been threatened himself.

Ricky agrees with NCL’s advice that young workers should stay away from traveling sales crews. In his years on the road, he’s worked with sales crew members as young as 17 and he thinks that’s “way too young…to be traveling from state to state.”

Traveling youth sales crews are exposed to many hazards. Robbery and assaults, sexual exploitation, and exposure to the elements are all dangers of life on the road. According to Ricky, many of the young sellers engage in a “party lifestyle.” Drug and alcohol abuse are part of the scene, he noted.

One of the greatest dangers is all the driving in vehicles—often older vans that aren’t in the best shape—required by door-to-door sales. In 1999, 7 crew members of a traveling sales crew died in a car crash in Janesville, Wisconsin; five other passengers in the van were seriously injured.  One of the dead was 18-year-old Malinda Turvey from Wisconsin. Since that tragedy, Turvey’s father, Phil Ellenbecker, has crusaded tirelessly to improve safety for young door-to-door sales people and curb the industry’s worst excesses. On his Web site, he has documented 86 deaths and 300 felony cases involving traveling door-to-door magazine crews.

Ellenbecker’s efforts helped bring about Malinda’s Act, which was signed into law by Wisconsin’s Governor Jim Doyle in March 2009. The law requires at least semi-monthly payment of wages and safety certification of the vehicles used to transport workers. It prohibits an employer from leaving employees stranded or taking away a worker’s money, ID, phone or any other personal property during the course of employment. It also prevents employers from restricting communication between the worker and family or friends and requires criminal background checks of crew members.

Wisconsin’s law is unique, and workers in most states enjoy few protections because they are often classified as independent contractors.

Consumers answering doors should also be careful. In May 2009, The Better Business Bureau said that in the previous 12 months it had received 1,100 complaints of deceptive sales practices from traveling crews working for 50 different companies.  Employees are often not licensed for sales work and can be misleading in their pitches.  The most common complaint was that the customer never received the magazine subscriptions they had purchased.

The National Consumers League offers tips for youth considering joining a sales crew, including questions to ask and warning signs.  Youth considering a traveling crew can also find a list of companies that have had complaints filed against them through the BBB’s Web site.

Next, we will be covering landscaping, grounds keeping and lawn service jobs.