Door-to-Door Sales Under Scrutiny

Greg Lantier and Patrick Boyle
October 1, 1998

Kids selling candy door-to-door or at the local shopping center have become a fixture of the American landscape – and a headache for child labor investigators.

While many of the kids are safely raising funds for legitimate youth groups, many others are being exploited by profit-making scam artists who put the kids at risk of injury and death. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), state labor officials and the National Child Labor Coalition (NCLC) are now banding together to attack the biggest exploiters of young peddlers – “traveling youth crews.”

“We’re making this a priority issue,” said NCLC coordinator Darlene Adkins. Some officials and advocates are also urging strict guidelines for all door-to-door sales by kids, even if those sales are for legitimate youth groups.

Last month, a year-long investigation by three Northwest states and the DOL led to the shutdown of a company that dumped 12- and 13-year-olds into strange neighborhoods to peddle candy for up to 12 hours a day. Meanwhile, the Interstate Labor Standards Association (ILSA) is trying to track how many youths are working in such crews nationwide, estimating that the figure is in the tens of thousands.

“At any time there are probably three or four main operators in every state,” said ILSA Secretary-Treasurer Colleen Baker, director of the Division of Labor Standards for the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

At ILSA’s annual convention in August in Nashville, the DOL promised to help the states set up a national clearinghouse on youth crews and create a public awareness campaign about the problem, Sellers and Adkins said.

The traveling crews are not the only ones under scrutiny: the rape this summer of a 14-year-old Virginia girl while selling newspapers subscriptions door-to-door, and the killing of an 11-year-old New Jersey boy while knocking on doors to raise money for his school last fall, renewed questions about how to safely send out kids to raise funds. Even though the questionable activities of the youth crews may harm the credibility of legitimate door-to-door fundraisers, national youth serving agencies have not jumped in to help curb the abuses or to craft a national safe practices standard.

“It’s a non-issue for us,” said Girl Scouts of America spokeswoman Judy Welage in declining to discuss what youth groups can do to protect kids in door-to-door sales. “We’re not spokespersons for door-to-door sales anymore than Avon is.” (See story, page 38)

Exploitation

The youth crews demonstrate how the same praiseworthy endeavor that has Girl Scouts knocking on doors to sell cookies can be exploited to lure kids into virtual slave labor. Adult crew leaders typically recruit kids from poor neighborhoods, load them into vans and drop them off in middle class communities or in downtowns, sometimes in neighboring states.

“It is typical for these folks to hire underprivileged kids and take them into affluent neighborhoods,” Baker said.

“Often they’re left unsupervised while peddling,” said Corlis Sellers, national office program administrator for the DOL. “The kids who are left on the streets could be robbed, abducted or raped.”

The organizations’ names are intended to make customers believe that by buying a candy bar, they are supporting a worthy youth group. In Texas, some of the names used by groups cited for illegally using kids for door-to-door sales over the past five years include “Texas Youth Foundation,” “Students for Free Enterprise,” and “Olympic Youth Club.” The names also help appease concerns by the children’s parents, who are happy to see their kids earning money.

Those earnings vary with what they sell. With candy, the most popularly peddled product, a kid’s take is typically $1 for every $5 to $6 box sold. Crew leaders often deduct expenses, such as meals and motel room rental, from the youths’ earnings. Sometimes Baker said, “when they don’t make their sales quota they’re left on a street corner” and must find their way home.

Tragedy

The recent Pacific Northwest case illustrates how it works. The probe began in August 1997, when two youngsters selling candy knocked on the door of a wage and hour supervisor’s house in Portland, Ore., according to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI). The kids climbed into a van with Washington state license plates. Officials tracked the van to Mansoor Alam Mian, who operated business with names such as “American Teen Sales Project” and “The Candy Zone.” Mian also had an address in Idaho, officials said.

An investigation by Oregon, Washington, Idaho and the DOL revealed that Mian’s under-aged employees often worked from 3-10 p.m. on weekdays and sometimes worked during school hours. On weekends, he would pick them up as early as 8 p.m. and return the home as late as 10 p.m., according to the Oregon BOLI.

Last month, Mian was fined $28,000 for illegally employing youngsters. The state’s Wage and Hour Division revoked his right to hire minors in Oregon.

Youth crews have been a sensitive issue in Oregon since 1989, when an 11-year-old girl was killed in neighboring Washington. The girl had been picked up one morning at 4:30 for a day of door-to-door sales, but by nightfall she and her crewmates had still not been picked up for a ride back to the motel where they were staying. After eating dinner at a bowling alley, the girls started walking 10 miles along a highway to the motel; the girl was struck by a car and killed.

How Common?

Statistics on youth crews are hard to come by because of the lack of national coordination among labor agencies, said Connie Knutti, assistant administrator of the Fair Labor Standards Department for the Illinois Department of Labor. Labor officials believe there are five or six crews operating in that state, Knutti said. Texas reports that in 1993 and 1994, it brought charges against 22 organizations for illegally using youths to sell door-to-door, with 81 youths (under 14) confirmed as having been involved, according to an ILSA survey released in August.

In a 1997 NCLC survey, 22 of 46 states reported knowing about traveling youth crew activity in the previous year. Many states and cities, however, don’t look very hard. For instance, more than a dozen kids ranging in age from about 10 to 13 spent half of this supper on the sidewalks of downtown Washington, D.C., selling magazines to raise tuition money to attend a private school in Maryland.

Such situations may blur the line between fund raising and employment. The youths worked on commission, but Eugene Mason, who dropped the children off and picked them up each day on behalf of the school, said their activity was not employment.

“That smells funny,” said Sellers of the DOL. “Often times they’ll say they’re raising money for camp or they’re scholarships” when they’re really working for a for-profit enterprise.

Asked about the safety of the children, who were spread among several blocks, Mason said he kept his eye on them: “You may not see me, but I’m aware of them at all times.”

Crackdowns Tough

State labor departments say their efforts to crack down on illegal youth crews often simply lead the crews to other states. Federal law enforcement agencies say the groups often fall outside the coverage of the Interstate Standards Act, and therefore cannot be investigated at a federal level.

To combat the problem, the 37-member ILSA formed the door-to-door sales committee last year. The committee helped to convince the DOL to join the states in setting up the national computerized database, so that labor officials can coordinate efforts and share information about youth crews they are aware of. The DOL will also help the states create a public information campaign warning youth crews.

Maybe they’ll do something about the penalties. The 22 cases investigated Texas in 1993-4 led to $334,750 in fines. The total amount paid so far, according to the Texas Workforce Commission: $250, from one offender.

Interstate Labor Standards Association

Colleen Baker, Secretary-Treasurer

c/o Missouri Division of Labor Standards

P.O. Box 449

Jefferson City, MO 65102

(573) 751-3403

Joan Stevens-Schwenger

Office of Public Relations

Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries

800 N.E. Oregon St. #32

Portland, OR 97232

(503) 731-4211

www.boli.state.or.us

National Child Labor Coalition

1701 K St., NW, Ste. 1200

Washington, DC 20006

(202) 835-3323

Fax: (202) 835-0747


Lantier, Greg and Patrick Boyle. "Door-to-Door Sales Under Scrutiny." Youth Today, October 1998, p. 56.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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