Lawmakers ready to try again on state legislation

January 4, 2004

After Eskalene DeBorde was raped and murdered at home in 2001 by a traveling magazine subscription salesman with a prior criminal record, state Sen. Tim Burchett and Rep. Steve Buttry introduced legislation to regulate the industry in Tennessee and to require background checks of salespeople.

The bill went nowhere.

Now that another woman in Tennessee has been raped and a child allegedly sexually molested by door-to-door salesmen in separate incidents, Knoxville Republicans Burchett and Buttry are ready to try again, hoping the latest two incidents will generate more support.

"It just makes sense to try to find some way to make sure that if you have people going door-to-door they are not felons," Buttry said. "I do not see any problem requiring anyone coming into our state to sell door-to-door having to have a background check and to register at the state level."

Burchett said he is also willing to consider a measure dealing with the questionable labor practices of traveling door-to-door sales crews.

"They don't need to be exporting criminals into Tennessee, and they don't need to be bringing poor folks and young people in here to exploit them, either," Burchett said. "But the reality is, it is going to be difficult to get legislation passed."

Burchett predicted some companies would hire lobbyists to thwart the effort, and said he expects, at least initially, some opposition from legitimate sales and charitable organizations.

"Mary Kay, Avon, Amway, companies like that are all legitimate and honorable," he said. "But I believe a way can be found to do what we need to do without hurting them."

The traveling sales crew industry has successfully avoided significant regulation for decades. Only three states regulate it, and despite congressional investigations in 1985 and 1987, there are virtually no federal regulations, even though it is common for crews selling magazine subscriptions or household cleaning products to travel through many states. And existing labor laws are being avoided by the practice of creating separately incorporated companies to handle sales operations and hire the sales crews as "independent" contractors.

"(But) the independent salesperson is not independent at all," New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams told a U.S. Senate committee in 1987. Calling them independent contactors "is a ruse or guise by which they tend to get away from the payment of worker's compensation benefits and taxes These schemes are nothing short of theft of labor and wages."

Young adults, mostly in the 18-24 age range, are lured into the industry by newspaper ads promising high pay, travel and a fun work environment in major cities or resort areas.

The ads "offer a complete package to all of one's life domains," said Dr. Mark Spellman, a clinical psychologist and professor at New York University and the husband of Earlene Williams, executive director of ParentWatch, a group that has monitored the industry for years and seeks to have it regulated. "They promise a cool life, travel and a lot of money. And they are targeted just to that little generational segment."

But the Senate probe found that many recruits were not initially told they would not receive a regular paycheck, that they must leave their earnings "on the books" and pay for many of their expenses out of a small draw against potential earnings. Turnover is high, and "large numbers of sales agents (end up) in debt to the sales organization," the Senate investigative report stated.

Not much has changed in the industry since the two probes, Williams said.

In 2002, Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., introduced legislation that would have brought sales crew members under the protection of federal labor standards law. A heavily amended version passed the Senate, but the measure failed in the House.

U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., not usually an advocate of new regulations on business, co-sponsored the bill in the House.

"It was legitimate legislation," Duncan said recently. "And I still think something should be done. There is not a business or industry that is not regulated in some way, but this industry operates with almost no regulation at all, and that has led to some of these abuses of employees as well as customers."

But Nathan T. Edwards, president of the National Field Selling Association, said there are already numerous local regulations that most traveling sales crews comply with, and that new federal regulations are not needed.

"The overwhelming majority of people in this industry have the same concern about someone knocking on their door or the door of their family," he said. "I have nothing ill to say about ParentWatch. I am sure the people that run it have a well-intentioned agenda, however flawed it is. But to say we need new legislation is to overlook the laws we already have on the books."

Edwards said his industry provides opportunities that many young people may not otherwise have. "We give them the training that will help them succeed," he said. "Of course, some bad people can infiltrate any business or organization under false pretenses."

Jim Balloch may be reached at 865-342-6315
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