Startup Evolution St. Louis Falls Weeks Behind on Payroll

The knitwear company tells staffers it’s ‘waiting for a check from an investor’

Jul 14, 2022 at 10:34 am
click to enlarge Employees say they haven't received a paycheck since June 3. - Monica Obradovic
Monica Obradovic
Employees say they haven't received a paycheck since June 3.

After a job search last year, seamstress Rebecca Leon found a position that checked all her boxes. A job at Evolution St. Louis advertised competitive pay and health insurance — rare finds in the garment industry.

She applied for the job and got it in September. Everything seemed fine until last month. On June 17, she and several of her colleagues didn’t receive their biweekly paychecks.

They were assured they’d be paid after the Juneteenth holiday, on Tuesday. But come Tuesday, they still hadn’t received their money. Then they were told they’d receive their pay on Friday, June 24. Then the next Friday, July 1. This cycle continued for weeks.

Now, over a month since their last paycheck, Evolution employees are still waiting to get paid.

“They're saying, ‘We had a hiccup in the budget for payroll,'” Leon says. “But they never really told me what the hiccup is. I don't think anybody knows.”

Evolution St. Louis operates a 32,000-square-foot, high-tech knitting factory in Grand Center. The company launched in 2019 after founders Jon Lewis and John Elmuccio — two fashion industry pros with experience at Fortune 500 companies — decided to invest in St. Louis. They told reports they strategically chose Evolution’s location on Washington Avenue for its history and affordability.

Before its current reality of exposed-brick lofts and nightlife, Washington Avenue was known as “Shoe Street, USA” because of the plethora of shoe manufacturers that once operated there. In the early 1900s, St. Louis was one of the largest garment producers in the world, second only to New York, according to the St. Louis Fashion Fund.

When launching Evolution, Elmuccio and Lewis said they wanted to recapture St. Louis’ fashion roots. Not only did they wish to bring the garment industry back to St. Louis, but at the time, Elmuccio vowed Evolution would “revitalize the knit sector, strengthen ‘Made in the USA’ fashion and create good-paying sustainable jobs in St. Louis.”

That mission was what initially drew Leon to the company.

“They were trying to bring the garment industry back to St. Louis, which I thought would be fantastic,” Leon says. “I hope this isn’t the end.”

It’s unclear whether all the company’s employees have gone more than a month without pay. Questioned about the missed paychecks, a representative for Evolution declined to comment.

Employees who spoke to the RFT said company leadership offered them financial assistance in the form of “cash advances” on their paychecks, despite not paying out for previous pay periods.

According to multiple employees, many staffers continued to work through June despite the lack of consistent pay. They hoped that when money did arrive, they’d still receive their hourly wages. This week, employees were told not to come to work, that the week would be a “paid vacation,” according to Vaughn Stinebaker.

“They keep telling us that manufacturing is such a big lift, that it takes money to make it happen,” says Stinebaker, a quality-control inspector at the factory. “They said the reason they haven’t been able to pay us is because they are waiting on a check from an investor.”

Employees who spoke to the RFT all said they valued their jobs but don’t want to work for free.

“I love Evolution, and I want them to succeed,” says an employee who spoke to the RFT on the condition of anonymity. She began working there less than a year ago and plans to go back once some stability returns. “I want to be a part of that success and growth, but as an employee, my allegiance lies with the workers.”

Leon also enjoyed her job, but now she’s struggling to make ends meet.

She’s gone to her bosses twice now to take them up on their offer to help. She says she received two payments, one for $500 and another for $800 when she needed to pay her rent.

But after not receiving a full paycheck for two pay periods, Leon says things are getting dire. She filed for unemployment this week.

“Just recently, I was down to $40,” Leon says. “I’m an older person. I’m 63, so I have prescriptions. One costs me $50, so I really need a constant flow of my paychecks because I have things budgeted out. Now, I don’t know whether to get my prescriptions or put gas in my car. You know, what do I pay first?”

Even though she wants to keep her job, Leon and a few of her colleagues have sought employment elsewhere. Some have kept their jobs so they can keep their benefits.

“The only thing that’s saving me now is that our insurance is still being paid,” Leon says. “I have several doctor’s appointments that I’m going to have to go to, but as far as co-payments, I’m not going to be able to pay them because I don’t have the money.”

According to multiple Evolution employees, this isn’t the first time the company has been late in paying its employees.

“It’s been a few days late before but never anything like this,” the anonymous employee says.

Adds Stinebaker: “The longest it’s ever been — before this big stint — was a weekend. The reason they gave was that our pay system wasn’t working right, like our HR department and our clock-in, clock-out system wasn’t doing its job super well.”

During this current pay gap, Leon has considered how she can cut back. She’s thinking about reducing how often she uses prescription eye drops to treat her glaucoma, traveling less to avoid high gas prices and buying cheaper food, “like bologna instead of a better cut of meat.”

She says she worries that whatever money Evolution is waiting for will never come.

“I enjoy the company, I enjoy the people and I enjoy what I’m doing,” Leon says. “I really don’t want to lose my job because I like it there.”