State labor officials have opened an investigation into a dispute between workers who said they expected to be paid for providing scares at a Martinez haunted house and the owner who insists they were volunteers.
About 70 of the mostly teen employees met Monday to vent their frustration and form a plan of action to get paid.
The staff worked at Terror Town, a haunted house on Wheeler Road, from late September through Oct. 31.
“I’m tired of being lied to,” Cat Spargo, 15, said.
Many of the workers said they believed they had signed contracts to be paid minimum wage with bonuses offered when the haunted house reached visitation milestones.
Owner Jimmy Collier, however, said the contracts state they were volunteers.
“It never mentions in there that they were going to get an hourly pay,” said Collier, who lives in Las Vegas and left managing the day-to-day operations to Rob Rampulla. “The contracts clearly say they are there on a volunteer basis.”
Georgia Department of Labor Communication Director Sam Hall said his agency started an investigation after receiving a complaint from the parent of a teen staff member, who claimed teens as young as 14 were working up to eight hours each day at Terror Town. The caller said workers had not received promised wages and that none of the underage staff members had work permits.
Hall said his office has no record of issuing work permits for Terror Town. According to state law, teens 13-16 need a work permit. Those ages 17-18 need a permit to show they are older than 16 to be allowed to work between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.
“When a child is of the age that a work permit is required, it is the responsibility of the employer to make sure they (staff members) have a permit before they hire them,” Hall said. “It is the responsibility of the parent or the child to get the permit in the first place.”
Collier said he didn’t require permits because he believed none were required for volunteers.
“To my knowledge, that is exactly how it is handled,” Collier said. “They don’t need work permits if they are working on a volunteer basis.”
The contract signed by staff members states: “Although all workers are here in a volunteer basis, completion of your job is mandatory in order to receive any and all compensation and/or donation. All compensations and/or donations for completed work will be paid on or by November 11, 2011. All workers who have completed the job assigned to them will be due some compensation or donation.
“By signing below you agree to the aforementioned statements and uphold the validity of the information you wrote above is accurate and true.”
Collier said he did intend to present a gift as compensation to the volunteers who fulfilled their obligations by working each night of the haunted house. After reviewing nightly logs, Collier said Thursday that just five staffers fulfilled the contract. Three of those people have already received non-cash compensation, and compensation is on the way to the other two, Collier said.
Columbia County Associate Magistrate Jason Troiano said contracts entered into by someone under 18 can be voided by a judge.
“It is not automatically void,” Troiano said. “It is voidable if someone challenges it.”
The haunted house was a private enterprise, and Collier said using volunteer staff is a common practice.
Phillip Stockard, a partner of Blood Plantation in Grovetown, agrees that using volunteers at haunted houses is typical.
“Most haunts, including Blood Plantation … are run by volunteers,” Stockard said. “It is a rare haunted house where there are paid employees.”
The staff and many of their parents said at the meeting at Blanchard Park on Monday that they were told they would be paid for their work.
“I didn’t ‘volunteer’ every weekend in October to not get paid,” one teen staffer said.
Collier, who insists he had no hand in operating the haunted house and only provided the rented building and props, believes someone improperly told the volunteers they would be paid.
“Somebody came in there and said ‘I’m going to get you paid,’ ” Collier said.
Cristal Davis said her 17-year-old niece worked at Terror Town and believed she’d be earning minimum wage and receiving bonuses.
“In the very beginning, at all the first meetings and all throughout the haunted house, they were told by Tyler (Toepher) and Robert (Rampulla) that they were going to get minimum wage for working,” Davis said. “Everyone thought they were getting paid.” Davis said she has contacted an attorney about the issue and plans to seek legal action.
Toepher, who most at the meeting believed was a manager, claimed he had spoken to Collier. He told the group that “everyone will get money” in about two weeks.
Collier disputed that claim.
He said before a phone conversation on Monday, he had spoken to Toepher only once, about a year ago, and never named anyone other than Rampulla as a supervisor.