'This bill protects our kids'

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Gazette Staff and Associated Press
March 25, 2009
— The state Legislature's approval Tuesday of the nation's toughest regulations on traveling sales crews is the beginning, not the end, for Phil Ellenbecker.

"We really want this regulation to be nationwide because this is a national problem," the Verona man said Tuesday night.

It was 10 years ago today that Ellenbecker lost his 18-year-old daughter, Malinda Turvey, in a horrific van crash that killed seven members of a traveling magazine sales crew near Milton. He said he made a promise to Malinda at her grave to fight the traveling sales industry after learning about the shady practices of many companies.

His efforts gained the support of Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Waunakee, and Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts, D-Middleton, who fought for the legislation for years. Business lobbyists and some Republicans blocked the legislation in the Assembly before, but Democratic majorities in the Senate and Assembly this year made passage possible.

The bill, "Malinda's Act," aims to clean up or eliminate the shady companies who recruit young adults to rove the country in vans selling magazines, soap and other items. Bill supporters say the companies lure workers with the promise of big money and excitement and then put them in unsafe and unfair conditions.

The Senate voted 27-6 for the bill and the Assembly passed it 68-30 hours later. Gov. Jim Doyle plans to sign it into law Thursday, Ellenbecker said.

"I'm overjoyed because this is going to keep (traveling sales crews) out of our state," he said. "It's such a great day for all of the victims and their families and the kids in Wisconsin and homeowners that this protects."

The National Consumers League says working on a traveling sales crew was the second-worst job for teenagers in 2008, citing potential dangers and coercive labor practices.

The rules will require sales workers who travel in groups of two or more to be employees rather than independent contractors, making them subject to labor laws. Companies that employ crews will have to register with the state, and their operators will have to pass criminal background checks.

Companies will be forced to tell recruits in writing where they will work and how much they'll be paid, carry certain insurance policies and post a $10,000 bond with the state.

"This bill, first and foremost, protects our kids," Erpenbach said.

But some business groups and Republican lawmakers said the regulations were far-reaching and would sweep up legitimate companies. Lawmakers rejected amendments sought by cable provider Charter Communications and direct sales companies that would have watered down the rules.

"We're overreacting to a horrible tragedy," Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, said. "This is going to destroy some businesses."

Southwestern Co. of Nashville warned the legislation might force the company to change its business practices or leave Wisconsin, where 60 college students sell its books and software every summer.

Right now, the company hires students for summer jobs as independent contractors. Students buy the supplies and sell them for a profit, often putting in long hours.

Company President Dan Moore said it's a great chance for entrepreneurial students to run businesses, which would change if they had to be considered employees.

Charter, meanwhile, said its workers who occasionally travel in pairs making door-to-door sales would be subject to the regulations. The company already does background checks and follows other requirements on its own but objects to adding them to state law, lobbyists said.

Ellenbecker said advocates would send the Wisconsin legislation to every attorney general in the country and talk to politicians about introducing federal regulations.

Ellenbecker and other families of the 1999 crash victims will gather Saturday for an annual memorial, he said. They meet at trees planted in the victims' memory to pray and remember.

"We're going to have a lot to talk about this time," he said.

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