Timed Out

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

Aug 14, 2002 at 4:00 am
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.

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."

But it may be illegal for an employer to have its minions punch in and punch out every day without actually using the time cards to tabulate pay.

"If the few minutes at the start and end of the shift were that important to them, we were happy to pay it," concedes Alexander in an attempt to explain the Partnership's settlement.

"We did not dock their pay if they reported a few minutes late, so [we] didn't feel obligated to strictly watch the clock either way, as long as the time difference was minor," she adds, explaining that the time cards were used simply to make sure corps members were on time -- not to calculate precise wages.

The DTSLP did indeed pay the ex-Corps members some money, but certainly not the amount sought by the likes of Cahill and Siller, who have been interviewing attorneys to represent them pro bono in a suit seeking undisclosed damages on their behalf. And, according to Cole and U.S. Department of Labor caseworker Robin Carter, they just might prevail if they get their day in court.

"They should be paid for hours actually worked," offers Carter, whose Wage and Hours Division has the authority to force the DTSLP to pay the ex-employees what their independent investigation says they're owed or, if the Partnership refuses, to assign Labor Department own attorneys to take up the case in court on the ex-Corps members' behalf.

"Presumably when you have somebody clock in and agree to pay them by the hour, they should get paid [for their punches]," seconds Cole.

At the end of the day, Cahill and company might have been better served had they made an end run around the DTSLP completely by taking their case straight to the Labor Department in the form of a written grievance, after which the Partnership's response might have been perceived as retaliatory. When asked to consider this hypothetical scenario and whether it could be considered illegal, Cole responds: "Arguably, yeah. But how far is this going to get them? They're not going to get anything [i.e., serious money]."

Cahill lets on that it's more about principle than the benjamins.

"We're not out to sue the damn Partnership for millions of dollars," she explains.

Regardless of how things shake out legally, there's considerable debate among the downtown retail community as to the viability of the Corps, its to-be-determined year-round reincarnation and, for that matter, the DTSLP itself.

For starters, there were those getups.

"They belonged out at the zoo with those safari helmets," says 73-year-old Jack Carl, the longtime, charmingly impish owner of the Two Cents Plain Deli at Eleventh and Olive streets.

"Madelyn was, like, 'Oh, the Downtown Partnership is this big deal in town,'" recalls ex-DCC employee Siller. "When we went out on the job, nobody knew who we were, and nobody cared.

"I personally don't recall any of the things I reported getting fixed. There was a stoplight at Eleventh and Pine that wouldn't get fixed, and I'd report it every day."

But for small business owners such as Downtown Music's Jerry Price, the DCC had a pleasant, if not overwhelming, impact on retail success. Price feels that disbanding the DCC is "one more strike against trying to make downtown viable."

For his part, Carl couldn't care less about the DCC, the Partnership or anyone else, for that matter -- as long as St. Loonies keep mowing down his Reubens.

"They [the DCC] didn't do a damn thing anyway. That goddamn Downtown Partnership thinks that shit up," Carl riffs. "It's not Downtown St. Louis; it's Donetown St. Louis."

Although Carl's prediction may be a smidge bleak for the downtown core as a whole, the Armageddon shoe might fit better on the DTSLP, whose main source of funding -- the CID -- comes up for reauthorization in 2003. Should naysayers such as Carl successfully stymie the signature drive, Alexander won't have to worry about clocks anymore. She won't have the funds to keep 'em ticking.