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After 10 years, advocates say they're close to regulating traveling sales

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Stacy Vogel
February 18, 2009
— It’s been 10 years since John Conger watched teenagers spill across the Interstate in a horrific accident that killed members of a traveling sales crew near Milton.

It’s been 10 years since Phil Ellenbecker got the call that his daughter, Malinda Turvey, was never coming home.


Both have fought to regulate and restrict traveling sales crews in Wisconsin, and they think their decade-long efforts finally might pay off this year after changes in the Legislature.


“We’re home to one of the most deadly incidents in regards to traveling sales crew, and it’s somewhat of an embarrassment” that Wisconsin hasn’t passed regulations, Conger said.


Conger was the town of Milton police officer who tried to stop a van speeding on Interstate 90/39 on March 25, 1999. The driver, Jeremy Holmes, didn’t have a valid license and tried to get one of the van’s 13 other passengers to take the wheel.


The van rolled, killing seven people, including Malinda.


Ellenbecker of Verona has dedicated his life to the issue of traveling sales crews since his daughter’s death. He learned that many companies exploit teen workers, forcing them to work long hours for little or no pay. Some are sexually or physically abused if they don’t make enough sales or are left on the side of the road when they want to go home.


He also learned of cases where salespeople with questionable backgrounds beat, raped or killed homeowners.


He enlisted his local legislators, Sen. Jon Erpenbach and Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts. The two have been working for nine years on legislation requiring companies using traveling sales crews to register salespeople with the state and treat the salespeople as employees, not independent contractors.


Assembly and Senate committees are taking up the legislation again this week.


In past years, the bill has sailed through the Senate but stalled in the Assembly Committee on Jobs, the Economy and Small Business.


But former committee Chairman Terry Moulton, who opposed the bill as written last year, lost his bid for re-election in the fall. Proponents think the bill has a good chance of passing in this year’s Democratic controlled Assembly and Senate.


Erpenbach and Pope-Roberts say the bill would allow the state to conduct background checks on traveling salespeople and force companies to guarantee salespeople basic rights such as wages, benefits and humane working conditions.


The Direct Sales Association and other groups have vehemently fought the bill in its current form, saying it would destroy the business model of companies with independent contractors such as Tupperware, Avon and Pampered Chef.


But Pope-Roberts said the bill doesn’t apply to those companies, which generally don’t employ door-to-door salespeople.


She said the bill might hurt some door-to-door sales companies, but it’s worth it to make sure children aren’t exploited. The legislation will save lives and protect consumers, she said.


Southwestern Company, a Tennessee-based company that employs college students as contractors selling books door to door, writes on its Web site that its contractors are “independent businesspeople” and should have the right to run their own businesses.


“It is clearly possible to regulate the activities of traveling sales crews without harming the tradition of free enterprise and entrepreneurship that is so important to our economy,” the Web site states.


An Assembly public hearing saw emotional testimony Tuesday, said Rep. Louis Molepske, the new committee chairman. Ellenbecker spoke about his personal loss and other tragedies involving traveling sales crews, and Conger sent written testimony.


Business groups spoke of the hardship the legislation would create for them, and students testified about positive experiences they’ve had with Southwestern.


Molepske said it’s clear something needs to be done, but he wants to make sure the legislation accomplishes its intended purpose.


The committee still is sorting through written testimony and hasn’t scheduled a vote on the legislation, he said.


The Senate Committee on Children and Families and Workforce Development will hold a public hearing Thursday and might vote afterward.


“I’m being optimistic, but I’m not going to hold my breath,” Ellenbecker said.


About traveling sales companies

The National Consumers League estimates 50,000 minors work selling products door to door or on street corners, often lured by promises of high wages and nationwide travel.


But the teens often are victimized—forced to work long hours for little or no pay, physically or sexually abused when they fail to sell enough and left stranded when they want to go home, according to the Better Business Bureau. The consumers league consistently ranks traveling crews among the worst jobs for teens and says the conditions can be dangerous.


Often, the sellers are told to say they’re earning money for scholarships or “to keep them off the streets,” when really the company is pocketing the profits, the bureau reports.


Advocates also point to cases where traveling salespeople have attacked, raped or killed homeowners because companies fail to perform background checks on the employees.


The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection advises people to use extreme caution when considering joining a traveling sales crew or dealing with a traveling salesperson. It says people should call the police if they become suspicious.



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