Timed Out

When the downtown safari corps demanded back pay, the Downtown Partnership told them to turn in their helmets

If they'd had it to do all over again, it's probably fair to assume that Madelyn Alexander and Betsy Cahill would agree on one thing.

They'd have punched that clock. Literally.

Had one of them cold-cocked the clock, Cahill and Alexander might not be where they are today: embroiled in a legal pissing match over peanuts and pride involving the Downtown St. Louis Partnership, for which Alexander works, and one of its subsidiary programs, the Downtown Courtesy Corps, for which 24-year-old Webster University grad student Cahill and four of her college-age colleagues used to work -- before the program was unexpectedly terminated three weeks early.

Dismissed Courtesy Corps members Amanda Siller, Betsy Cahill and Ashley Ray
Jennifer Silverberg
Dismissed Courtesy Corps members Amanda Siller, Betsy Cahill and Ashley Ray

Only one of Cahill's ex-Corps colleagues, Kipp Taylor, still works for the Partnership. And the downtown retail community is split over whether the Corps or the DTSLP has ever pulled its tax-subsidized weight.

Both the DTSLP and the DCC were established with a controversial $4 million local business-tax windfall made possible by the passage of a Community Improving Taxing District in the downtown core, a petition-based process that barely garnered enough merchant signatures in 1999. In essence, Cahill and her DCC cohorts were like walking info desks, a safari-helmet-clad band of $9-per-hour glee-clubbers charged with, among other things, greeting downtown visitors during the summer, helping them find certain downtown destinations, visiting businesses and reporting utility problems.

After a good two months on the job, Cahill and all but one (Taylor) of her five college-age colleagues submitted a formal letter to their supervisor, Alexander, and the DTSLP leadership. In it, they demanded $196.83 apiece in back pay for minutes spent on the job before and after the standard 8 a.m.- 5 p.m. shift.

According to Cahill, DCC members were required to show up and punch in at 7:55 each morning and punch out late because "it was not uncommon to work an extra ten to twenty minutes, depending on how far away from the office we were stationed." Cahill also claims that wayward passersby would stop them and ask for help on their way back to the office.

"With the exception of Kipp, we were all complaining about the job and how it was pointless," adds Cahill's fellow Webster student and former DCC employee Amanda Siller. "Finally Betsy was, like, 'Y'know, I don't think we get paid for all the times we're here in the afternoon.' I was just, like, 'Yeah, I want my money.'"

Alexander was served with the letter on Wednesday, July 17. It was the first she'd heard of her employees concerns. She was none too happy.

"Thursday morning, our boss, Madelyn, was really mad about it and going off about how we had this relationship where we could come to her with our problems," reports Siller. "She said, 'We looked over your stuff, and we don't owe you what you say we do.'"

Siller didn't feel that approaching Alexander was ever an option:

"Every time I'd ask her a question, she'd roll her eyes at me."

By that Friday, the Downtown Courtesy Corps was toast, an action that startled the signers on the basis of their presumption that such a heavy-handed maneuver was retaliatory and therefore in violation of federal law. Rather than lay off or fire the DCC employees, Alexander and DTSLP president Jim Cloar simply disbanded the program altogether, promising a year-round, more security-minded reincarnation modeled after a program Cloar spearheaded in his prior home of Tampa. Additionally -- and, perhaps surprisingly, in light of DTSLP lawyers' conclusion that the employees' claims had no validity whatsoever -- each employee was promised back pay of $25 to $75 for coming in five minutes early each day.

It was the D-word -- "demand" -- that rankled Alexander.

"That first indication of dissatisfaction was in the form of a letter of demand rather than a request, and that the issue was over reporting five minutes early and taking a few minutes to return after the shift was concluded suggests doubt as to the [employees'] underlying attitude about the assignment," asserts Alexander in an e-mail.

Adding insult to injury, Alexander promptly rehired the lone wolf who refused to sign the letter, Taylor, in the capacity of DTSLP "brochure coordinator."

Taylor, regarded by bosses and merchants alike as the golden boy of the Corps, thinks the whole thing is downright goofy.

"I was pretty much considering signing it, then I ... thought about it overnight and didn't sign it," admits Taylor, who will return to Truman State University in Kirksville for the fall semester. "[I] felt like it was kind of silly, overly greedy and petty."

But what of Cahill's presumption that disbanding the DCC put the Partnership on shaky legal footing?

"A lot of discretion is given to employers when they articulate their reasons for terminating someone. These kids are kind of being taken advantage of, but it's not illegal," observes St. Louis University law professor Melissa Cole. "It's also, believe it or not, valid for an employer to say, 'This employee has a bad attitude [on the basis of the letter], and I don't want her working for me.' It's almost more outrageous because it is legal."

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