Sandy Huffaker / The New York Times / Redux

Human trafficking: Mag crew kid at your door could be victim

Unclear whether new legal designation will do anything to curb magazine sales industry abuses involving itinerant agents

It’s a testament to their salesmanship that in the time it took to consume one Waffle House meal in Columbus, Ohio, a table of door-to-door itinerant magazine sales crew members convinced their 25-year-old server, Johnathan Terrell Stewart, to quit his job last May, leave home without telling his family and join them on the road.

A few weeks later, police in Maryland called Stewart’s grandmother to tell her that he had been found dead in a motel room. It was a heroin overdose, the family learned from the autopsy report they eventually received, but they know little else about what happened to him. Eight months later, police still won’t release any information about their investigation into his death. His body was shipped home shirtless, in jeans and tennis shoes; all of his belongings, including his wallet and cellphone, disappeared along with his crew, whose name remains unknown.

When mag crew workers become victims of tragic accidents or perpetrators of violent crimes, they’re often thousands of miles from home, which makes it difficult for their families to get information about their cases — often involving foul play. Since their door-to-door jobs are by nature itinerant, they roam the streets, trying to sell magazine subscriptions to the public in town after town.

It is also a job that, many say, leaves crew members open to serious abuse. There is a long list of persistent mag crew-related problems, which usually generate only local news attention — disappearances, rapes, assaults, van rollover accidents, abandonments and suspicious deaths. Successful civil lawsuits against mag crew company owners haven’t done much to curb the industry’s labor abuses, and because of jurisdictional restrictions, local police in most states can do little other than arrest sales agents for selling without proper permits.

But now some advocates are pushing for a shift in the way law enforcement deals with mag crew workers. Federal anti-human-trafficking laws — generally thought of as protections for domestic and sex industry workers — apply to many young people working on traveling magazine sales crews as well, they argue. 

‘Exploitative’ situation

Polaris, a nonprofit that monitors and helps victims of human trafficking, says that it has received 96 calls in three years to its national hotline reporting potential mag-crew-related abuses and that mag crews are a growing area of concern regarding labor trafficking in the U.S.

Mag crew workers typically work 10- to 12-hour days for little pay, with employers exerting physical or psychological control over them. Because company owners often hold much of their money in accounts the sales agents don’t have access to, sales agents might feel obligated to stay with the crew. Some companies have been known to confiscate workers’ phones. Agents who fail to make their daily quotas (usually about 10 sales) are sometimes beat by managers or other crew members, according to multiple sources within the industry.

Even ardent defenders of the business acknowledge that managers’ abandoning workers, sometimes thousands of miles from home and with no money to return, is a common problem.

Lori Smith, 23, says that she, her boyfriend and their 1-year-old son were dropped at a bus stop by their crew manager in Phoenix in October with no money to get home to Illinois. She called Earlene Williams — the director of Parent Watch, a nonprofit mag crew watchdog organization that she founded in the 1980s — who eventually got the crew owner to pay for their trip home.

“Generally, if [a worker has] been abandoned, we’ll do an assessment, but I’ve never seen anyone who’s been abandoned by their crew who wasn’t in an exploitative trafficking situation,” says Lara Powers, a program specialist at Polaris. “Abandonment is that last straw of noncompliance … and the threat of abandonment is a strong form of coercion we see on these crews.”

But other longtime advocates for mag crew rights are skeptical that this newer designation will do much to curb labor abuses in this industry, in which an average 20-person sales crew generates an estimated $1 million per year, according to Williams. Eight major players run the majority of door-to-door magazine sales crews, she says, although countless smaller operations send vans rolling through the U.S. as well, making overall figures for revenue and number of employees impossible to pinpoint.

Williams says the trafficking label is problematic. “Yes, it could be considered labor trafficking. They work long hours, and if they don’t make their quota, they might not be fed. They might be bullied and humiliated, and they’re often made to believe they owe a debt and may spend months trying to work it off.

“But often when the law enforcement people try to apply the statute — and they always want to prosecute on behalf of a group of victims, not an individual — the ambivalent behaviors or marginal status of crew members make it nearly impossible,” she said.

Williams has fought for years to make mag crew company owners classify their workers not as independent contractors but as employees. As employees, they would be eligible for unemployment and workers’ compensation, a minimum wage and overtime pay. But mag crew owners argue that there’s too much turnover and that paying taxes on so many transient workers would be too expensive.

Asked about sales agents’ typically sub-minimum-wage earnings — typically one third what their managers make — Cody Leach, a former crew manager, said, “It’s all a scam, every part of it.”

Trainees typically make only $20 a day while they shadow other crew members, Leach and Smith say. Smith adds that she saw other workers beaten and intimidated and made to knock on doors until midnight if they hadn’t made their quotas. She was good at her job, she says, despite working 12 hours for just $75, of which $40 was needed to pay for her son’s babysitter at the motel.

As a good salesperson, she fared better than many crew workers, some of whom are recruited outside halfway houses or off the street. Many lack the resources to go to college or get a high-paying job.

“A lot of these kids have no place to go,” Leach says. “That’s why they stay.”

‘Yes, it could be considered labor trafficking. They work long hours, and if they don’t make their quota, they might not be fed. They might be bullied and humiliated, and they’re often made to believe they owe a debt and may spend months trying to work it off.’

Earlene Williams

director, Parent Watch

Elden Rosenthal, a lawyer in Portland, Oregon, has won several mag-crew-related civil cases. In one, he sued the company of a sales agent who murdered a woman in her home. Caught stealing money out of her cookie jar, the agent panicked and bludgeoned her to death. Rosenthal says, however, “I don’t think I could win a trafficking case. They signed contracts. They’re told they can leave.”

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defines labor trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.”

“Fraud and coercion carry a high burden of proof,” Rosenthal says.

In August, Midwest Circulation crew managers Justin Angermeier and Jeremy Moots were arrested on labor trafficking charges in North Carolina when police discovered two teen girls from North Dakota on their crew; the girls told police they worked eight-hour days for only $20 and when they asked to leave, they were told they couldn’t. Angermeier and Moots denied knowledge of the girls’ ages and said the teens, as well as two 18-year-old cousins on the crew making similar claims, hadn’t been prevented from leaving. Angermeier and Moots pleaded guilty to the lesser charges of contributing to the delinquency and neglect of a minor and were released with time served.

Another issue inhibiting legal action, Rosenthal says, is how the mag crew business is structured in several tiers, which makes legal cases more difficult.

“The manager who hired the salesman might have lied to the young person about how much money he’d make, but that manager doesn’t have anything,” he says. “He’s on the road with the crew, a vagabond himself. At the next level up with the clearinghouse, that person will say, ‘I didn’t defraud anyone. I had nothing to do with recruiting. All I do is manage the accounts.’”

Rosenthal was successful in winning a large settlement in one case because the company carried a commercial liability policy. After that suit, he says, “The industry just stopped having insurance.” A more recent case against Marquis Fulfillment Agency, in which a car handler rolled a van and killed several passengers, resulted in a minimal award for the victims’ families.

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars passed through their checking account and was siphoned off to another company,” Rosenthal says. “Marquis itself had no assets and no insurance, so it filed bankruptcy.” So the families received relatively little.

Named for one of seven mag crew workers who were killed in a 1999 van accident near Janesville, Malinda’s Law in Wisconsin went into effect in 2010. The law requires mag crew companies to have worker’s compensation insurance and to register each crew member with Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development. Sales agents must carry copies of their permits and department-issued identification cards with them when they’re working. In addition, the law prohibits companies from making crew members knock on doors after 9 p.m., from telling sales agents to lie to consumers about where the money they make is going, from abandoning or threatening workers and from not allowing them to contact family and friends. Rather than abide by these requirements, however, mag crews now simply avoid Wisconsin.

In addition to the various legal roadblocks in remedying mag crew labor abuses, the victims themselves can be an issue for prosecutors. Within a few days after they have had a bad experience on a crew and have returned home, their phone numbers often change, and many are traumatized and don’t want to talk about it anymore, Parent Watch’s Williams says. 

Some of the titles sold by traveling crews.
Picturelibrary / Alamy

Managers often carefully cultivate a family identity among their workers, and advocates say members often feel a ganglike loyalty to their crews, no matter what abuses they’ve experienced or have seen on the road. Some crew members even get the three-digit numbers of their crews tattooed on themselves. Carrie, a former mag crew agent and manager who was married to a company owner and asked that her real name not be used, says that crew members are pressured to enthusiastically participate in “sometimes appalling” songs and chants at morning sales meetings and that it’s frowned upon if sales agents don’t want to party with the rest of their crew.

Former Fit for Life crew manager Ricky Bartlett posted crew pictures on Facebook with the hashtag 008fam, his crew’s number. In addition to expressing love for his crew, he shows his appreciation for the money his agents make him; in one picture, he spells out a big 008 across a motel bed in $20 and $100 bills.

Carrie says, “Coming back to reality and a normal lifestyle was a huge challenge.” She says she still feels guilty about things she witnessed on her crew.

“I saw people who had learning disabilities and were trying really hard just left at a bus station or on the side of road with no money, no nothing, 1,700 miles from home,” she says. Another time, while driving a sales agent who had just been beaten by her boyfriend to a bus station, she convinced her not to leave the crew and to return to their hotel instead.

“I still have moments when I get really upset about it,” Carrie says. “But I think it’s easier for me because I have my son. Had I not gotten pregnant on crew, I never would’ve had all the realizations I did. It’s truly a blessing from God.”

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