Almost every day, apron-clad women stand at makeshift tables in supermarkets around the country, handing out free bites of Boar’s Head meats, Kern’s Derby Pie or Pop’s Pickles. They stand for up to six hours straight and earn anywhere from $10 to $16 an hour.
“I loved the work. You get to work with people, and they get to try a lot of new things. It’s a fun job,” said Sharon Pilder of Madison, Tenn.
But for Pilder and at least 18 other women in Tennessee and Kentucky, the fun ended last fall. They say the company that contracted them, a Louisville outfit called Kentucky Flavor, which isn’t registered with the Kentucky Secretary of State, duped them out of a combined $5,500 in wages.
Leading their effort to be paid is Phyllis Cupit of Hermitage, Tenn.
“We were all doing the same thing: requesting by e-mail or phone that we hadn’t received our paycheck and we would like our money,” Cupit said, referring to exchanges with Kentucky Flavor’s owner, Nancy Schladand of Louisville.
“She’d say, ‘I’ll get it to you as soon as I can.’ Finally she just quit answering our e-mails and phone calls altogether.”
In her efforts to force Schladand to pay up, Cupit said she was bounced pinball-style from one police and state agency to another in two states. Tennessee authorities said it was a Kentucky matter, and vice versa. Some said it was a civil, not a criminal matter. Neither the federal Wage & Hour Division nor the Kentucky Labor Department would touch it.
“We can’t help independent contractors,” said Kentucky Labor Department spokesman Daniel Lowry. “That would have to be a lawsuit. If we determined that they were really employees, we could come in and help them.”
Finally, at the end of her line, Cupit reached out to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. We made some calls on behalf of the part-time laborers.
First, we spoke to more of the food demo workers. All worked in Kroger stores in small towns.
Johann Warsing of Harrodsburg confirmed she is owed $120. Susan Frost of Hendersonville, Tenn., said she is owed $435.
Janet Hendrix of Columbia, Tenn., is out $540, Pamela Moberly of Corinth, Ky., $336, Wendy Winely of Castalian Springs, Tenn., $708, Sharon Pilder of Madison, Tenn., about $600.
When the women started working for Kentucky Flavor in mid-2013, they said, Schladand could be slow to pay. By late fall, more weren’t being paid at all. When the women asked about their money, Schladand came up with alibis.
As in this Dec. 30, 2013, e-mail to Susan Frost, who was smarting from a $375 check that bounced:
“Susan, I will be meeting the bank today along with someone to help me resolve the problem and get you your pay,” Schladand wrote.
“I have had 2 pretty large checks that were deposited that were debited out and reversed which in turn caused the last two checks that I wrote to return. I take this very seriously and will make it right. My meeting is at noon — I will notify you before the day is over and let you know the status. I am very sorry this happened.”
Frost received her status update the next day:
“Everything has been resolved and certified funds have gone out to you in full — along with a W-9 form for your taxes for 2013, I am very sorry for the major inconvenience.”
Frost said the money never arrived. “I never heard anything from her again,” she said.
We reached her by phone. She agreed to meet with a reporter at a Bardstown Road coffee shop on May 8.
Schladand canceled by text message 46 minutes before the scheduled time. She seemed to regard the delinquent debt issue as moot because, as she texted, the contractors “will be paid.” Kentucky Flavor, she wrote, is “no longer operating.”
Two days earlier, Schladand said that and more in an e-mail to the contractors.
“Certified funds will be mailed out in the next 10 days,” she wrote on May 6. “If you are owed any money and have not received it by May 24, 2014, please contact me.”
More than a month later, each of the 12 women we contacted last week said they received zip.
“I was excited when I got her letter because I really thought she’d pay us,” said Sharon Pilder. “I thought she got a loan or something.”
Cupit, the ringleader for the 19 unpaid contractors, was not surprised by the latest broken promise. Still, it hasn’t quite sunk in how people are capable of such deceit.
“We made her look really, really good,” Cupit said. “She couldn’t be disappointed in us. We always sold the product and sold it above and beyond what you would even think we’d be able to do, just letting people taste the product.”
Some of the women have given up hope of ever being paid. More than anything, they just want to alert the public to Schladand’s business practices. To Janet Hendrix of Columbia, Tenn., not receiving her $550 in back pay compounded the hardship of caring for her disabled 88-year-old mother, a mentally ill 66-year-old brother and her late best friend’s brother with liver cancer.
“In my heart of hearts, I’ve given up on the money,” Hendrix said through tears. “I just want her stopped. I don’t want her hurting other people like she hurt me. It’s a matter of principle.”
At the time of this article’s publication, the contractors had yet to receive their money. Schladand again did not respond to requests for comment.
This story was reported by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.