Regulation sought on traveling sales jobs

Bill calls for standards in industry on pay, safety

Posted: Aug. 23, 2005

Madison - Daniel Burrus went to work for a traveling magazine sales crew because he thought the "rock 'n' roll job" would give him a chance to see the country while making money.

After five years in the industry, Burrus, now 31, said the only thing that got rocked was him.

Burrus, who lives near St. Louis, didn't attend a hearing Tuesday before the state Senate's Committee on Job Creation, Economic Development and Consumer Affairs to support a bill to regulate door-to-door, traveling sales crews working in the state.

But now that he has left the business, Burrus said he is determined to prevent other people from being taken advantage of by businesses that operate under few guidelines.

"I've seen a lot of lives ruined and a lot of abuse, lies and deceit . . . it's definitely something that needs to be stopped," Burrus said.

The bill (SB 251) is intended to protect youths who are employed in the industry at low wages and who work under sweatshop-like conditions selling such products as magazine subscriptions or household cleaners. The push for the legislation was spurred by a 1999 van crash near Janesville that killed seven teenagers and injured other members of a sales crew.

Opponents said the bill was too onerous and, as a result, would drive door-to-door salespeople from the state. Still, no one appeared at the hearing to testify or register against the bill.

"When one problem occurs, there's this Draconian fix to try to keep one bad thing from ever happening again," said Sen. Tom Reynolds (R-West Allis), who opposes the bill but said he might support a scaled-back version.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton), the bill's author, told the committee that such legislation would also protect Wisconsin consumers and homeowners. Customers sometimes don't receive the magazines they order, and crews in other states have been associated with crimes, Erpenbach said.

"It will give us a chance to know when the sales crews are in the state of Wisconsin, and where they are at a particular time," Erpenbach told the committee.

State officials cannot estimate the size of the business in Wisconsin because of its transient nature, said Rose Lynch, spokeswoman for the state Department of Workforce Development.

Dan Smith, legal counsel for the National Field Selling Association, estimates there are about 3,000 to 4,000 people working on such crews across the country, but she didn't think there was an industrywide problem that would warrant such a regulation.

"Look at any agency or industry and there's always going to be bad press . . . it's almost impossible in today's Internet world to overcome that," Smith said.

Among other measures, the proposed law would:

Require employers of traveling sales crews to register with the state before conducting business and carry permits showing they are licensed to sell.

Mandate that members of sales crews be considered employees and prohibit the use of independent contractors or minors.

Require traveling sales crews to post a $10,000 bond or equivalent when registering with the state, and to pay employees at least twice a month.

Limit the times of day when sales crews may be in the field.

If passed, Wisconsin's bill would be the most restrictive in the country, said Phil Ellenbecker of Verona, who lost his 18-year-old daughter, Malinda Turvey, in the Janesville accident.

He maintains the Web site that monitors the industry and pending legislation. He said he's sometimes frustrated it has taken so long for a bill to move through the Legislature.

"This isn't a Republican or Democratic issue, this isn't a political issue," Ellenbecker said. "The bill is structured to save kids and protect them, and to protect homeowners and consumers. This bill is about public safety."

A Senate committee passed a similar bill last year, but time ran out in the legislative session before it could go to the entire Senate for a vote.

Committee chairman Sen. Ted Kanavas (R-Brookfield) said he's "extremely confident" the Senate will advance the bill; the five-member committee is expected to vote on the bill in the coming days. If cleared by the Senate, the bill would need approval from the state Assembly before going to Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle for his signature.

As attorney general, Doyle had said he would support legislation to regulate the industry. Doyle spokeswoman Melanie Fonder said the bill "sounds like a good idea" and said Doyle would evaluate it fully if it reaches his desk.

Smith said there are a number of business concerns with such legislation, especially because it would put an undue burden on sales companies to comply. In the end, some businesses might be excluded from selling in the state at all, he said.

"Companies could meet the standards, but . . . none of them ever would," Smith said. "The industry today runs into these problems based on some county having a license requirement and another that doesn't and it's very hard to keep up with that, especially when you're from out of town."