College Pro accused of exploiting students
Student-run painting company faces allegations of poor management, low pay, and unsafe working conditions
By Tristan Lapointe News Writer
Summer jobs are tough to come by, but students asked to sign a contract with College Pro – a company some former employees have called a pyramid scheme – may want to keep searching. College Pro, an international student-run painting company, depends on students as a steady source of summer labour – but some workers say College Pro exploits desperate and gullible students, pays low wages, and foregoes safety in the name of completing contracts. The company is built on independent student-owned franchises controlled by student-run regional offices. Once franchises are sold to students, they are responsible to recruit and manage other students to work for them as painters. Tyler Sloan, a U2 Neuroscience student at McGill, spent two months last summer working for one of College Pro’s Montreal franchises and described his time there as underpaid and poorly managed. “Because the franchise owners are eager to make money, they routinely underestimate jobs, leaving their painters to make up the difference with long hours and low wages,” he said. A job may be estimated to take 20 hours – for which the painters are paid in full. But employees are not paid for overtime, meaning that they are sometimes paid as little as $4 per hour. U4 Management student Stephanie Brunet, a former College Pro painter, also complained of low wages. “Regardless of what [College Pro] say about pay, a good two weeks for me was $300, for at least 30 hours a week,” she said. Kate Muddiman, U4 Management, is College Pro’s director for all of Eastern Canada and ran a franchise for two years. She claimed that there is already a complaint process in place – and that the allegations had never been brought to the company’s attention. “College students ought to be able to advocate for themselves,” she said. “If they feel they’re being mistreated or underpaid, they have mechanisms to complain. We’re all at least 18 years old and should be able to handle talking to an employer.” Muddiman said that during one of the summers she owned a franchise, she pocketed $19,000 – but would not disclose her current salary. Muddiman also said that franchise owners must make weekly reports on the status of their franchises and are subject to review for anything from worker complaints to poor sales figures. Brunet and Sloan cited the structure of the company as the biggest source of conflict, saying there’s no incentive to treat employees well. They pointed to a contest the company runs, in which the franchise owner with the most contracts wins a trip to Cancun. “It’s a pyramid scheme,” said Sloan. “These [student franchise owners] are told they can make thousands of dollars in a summer but [that] they’d better not fail…. It all comes down to making money, and not running a good business.” Worker safety has also come under fire. While all College Pro painters are required to pass safety tests and training on safe ladder practices, Brunet said College Pro’s safety protocols were routinely violated on her worksites. “When you’re working above ten feet, you’re supposed to have a safety harness. It’s something we learned in our training seminars before we even started working,” she explained. “For our eight teams of painters, there was only one harness.” Sloan said one customer was so appalled at the lack of harnesses that she ordered staff to stop working until the manager arrived with proper safety equipment. But Muddiman pointed out that a telephone number to report safety violations or other concerns is at the top of every contract. She said her office receives calls, but it takes six complaints before a franchise manager is investigated. According to Brunet, employees were also asked to do jobs above and beyond their job descriptions and training – leaving a trail of dissatisfied customers and only the painters to act as a buffer. “On several occasions we got to a job site and found we had been hired to do something other than painting. We were asked to do caulking, vine removal, even pressure washing,” said Brunet. “When customers got pissed because we didn’t know what we were doing, we sided with them.” “Management left us out as a buffer between them[selves] and angry customers,” she added. When asked about a complaint mechanism within the company, Brunet and Sloan said that most people just quit. Muddiman agreed, saying College Pro had a large turnover rate. “A lot of painters are fired, too,” she said.
Originally published by The McGill Daily, Monday, March 26th, 2007 Volume 96, Number 44