Art Foster and James Stapleton
IN MARCH, James Stapleton, a senior at Johnson & Wales University, landed
what he considered a tremendous summer job. Virginia-based University Painters
hired him as a summer outlet manager for the Providence area.
As a business management major, Stapleton thought this was a great
opportunity, he explained recently in front of his Federal Hill apartment,
since he'd get "to run a business from start to finish in a short amount of
time." Plus, the 22-year-old would make at least $5000, according to University
Painters, and receive college credit.
But as the summer painting season winds down, Stapleton and other college
students in New England say they're sorry that they ever responded to
University Painters' flyers.
Despite working the 60 hours a week recommended by the company, Stapleton will
be fortunate to make $2000 for the summer. And that amount doesn't include an
$800 cell phone bill, wear and tear on his car, and $200 in additional
expenses. Other managers for University Painters tell similar stories, and
things may get worse -- the employment contract permits University Painters to
fine them $3000 if they quit or are fired before September 30.
Billing itself with a registered trademark as "the Educated Choice,"
University Painters has grown significantly since it was established in 1991,
and the company has benefited from highly favorable coverage in some college
newspapers. A 1997 story in the Cavalier Daily at the University of
Virginia, for example, was headlined, "Firm lets students paint wallets
Joshua Jablon, the founder of University Painters, told the Cavalier
Daily that he started painting houses as a student at Temple University in
Philadelphia in 1986, and that he "decided to franchise the small business
because I felt I could teach others the trade." Headquartered just outside
Washington, DC, in Alexandria, Virginia, University Painters operates in 10
East Coast states and has been known to have more than 100 student
But other college students echo the gripes expressed by Stapleton, and the
problems extend beyond Rhode Island. After interviewing 11 student-managers
employed by University Painters, the Hartford Courant found that most of
them expected to lose money for their efforts this summer. Others complained of
inadequate training, misleading recruiting, and slow payment for painters.
Fourteen of University Painter's 24 New England managers quit by mid-August,
the Courant found, and some are being pursued by the company for the
"It basically sucks," says one manager, who asked to not be identified for
fear of being fined. "They get college students looped into these contracts
very fast, and if they want to quit, they can't, because they owe 'em $3000."
Reached at his Virginia office, Jablon declined to comment. But in August, he
told the Courant, "This is not for the meek. It's a hard, challenging
job that requires a lot more than a typical summer job. I'm not going to tell
you its been a stellar year. There's a lot of guys who are frustrated in New
But not just employees of University Painters are upset. Since 1997, the
Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan Washington has logged 15 complaints
against University Painters for communication problems and poor work quality.
The bureau neither endorses nor approves of businesses, but compiles
information so consumers can make their own decisions.
And after hearing from Stapleton and others, John Laurent, a career services
coordinator at Johnson & Wales, decided the university will no longer
permit University Painters to recruit on campus. Laurent, who wouldn't comment
to the Phoenix without authorization from the university's public
relations department, told the Courant, "You learn that not everyone out
there has the best intention for the students."
USING FLYERS, mailings and campus recruiters, University Painters enlists
college students each winter to be front-line managers for the following
summer. The company's Web site (www.univpaint.com) urges students to apply "for
a unique summer job," handling $40,000 to $100,000 in annual sales. "The
manager," the pitch notes enticingly, "will gain hands-on practical business
experience in all aspects of running a business." No prior painting experience
The Web site also makes conflicting claims about expected earnings. One link
states that managers make between $5000 and $10,000 for a summer's work, while
another section boosts of average earnings between $7000 and $15,000. Jablon
refused to discuss average earnings with the Phoenix, but he told the
Cavalier in 1997 that students can earn between $8000 and $30,000 in a
Like Stapleton, another local outlet manager, 27-year-old Art Foster of
Wrentham, Massachusetts, says he'll make less than the minimum wage for his
summer work. Foster, a Johnson & Wales sophomore, received a letter from
University Painters last winter and was hired after going to two interviews.
Like other prospective managers, he signed an employment contract and had three
weekends of training outside of Boston, in Brookline and Waltham,
Foster says he then followed company instructions for drumming up business. He
distributed door hangers and, prodded by e-mails from University Painters,
placed signs on public property and on telephone poles, in violation of local
ordinance, with his father. The Massachusetts communities of Attleboro and
Franklin threatened to fine him if he continued, he says, so he stopped.
Until painting began, managers were paid $10 per estimate. Despite his effort,
Foster says, he made only about $180 by doing estimates, and his revenues were
undercut by expenses. As required by his contract, Foster bought a pick-up
truck for $1000, a ladder rack for $300, brushes and other tools, and ran up
long-distance phone bills and gas and truck repair costs -- none of which are
reimbursed by University Painters.
He also hired painters, but several quit soon after. "They hated the way they
were getting paid," Foster explains.
Under the University Painters system, Foster got a 3 percent commission when
he landed a job. Estimates are made by the amount of time required, and when
the job is finished, managers receive an additional $3 for each hour of work.
Painters, however, receive nothing up front and are not paid until after they
finish a job. Neither manager nor painters receive health insurance.
Two painters who worked for Stapleton, John Cole, a 21-year senior at Johnson
& Wales, and Christian Knoll, a 19-year-old sophomore at Gettysburg College
in Pennsylvania, say they completed their first house in June, but weren't paid
until August. Then, says Cole, he couldn't work for a month, because
Sherwin-Williams paint company restricted University Painters' credit, and
Stapleton was unable to buy more paint.
Knoll says his colleagues and he all but finished painting a Warwick house in
July, but have yet to be paid, because the job requires one more gallon of deck
stain that Stapleton can't pry lose from Sherwin-Williams. Both painters say
they would work again for Stapleton, but not for University Painters.
Another problem, notes Stapleton, is that if his estimate was inaccurate, the
extra cost came out of his pay and the painters', not the money sent to
corporate headquarters in Virginia. When a house in Seekonk, Massachusetts,
unexpectedly needed two coats of paint on three sides, Stapleton had to pay for
the extra paint. And because painters are paid by the job and not by the hour,
they had to apply the second coat for free.
If the estimates were correct, painters were paid $9-per-hour. But in the
tight labor market, Foster says, he had difficulty hiring and keeping painters.
His supervisors then instructed him to hire subcontractors, but ordered him not
to pay them more than 50 percent of the price for the job. Foster says he
called 20 subcontractors from Attleboro to Cranston, and all but two refused
the work when they learned how little he was offering. In the process, Foster
rolled up $200 in long-distance phone charges that came out of his own
The failure of Stapleton and Foster to land much work was typical, and by the
first week of July, Jablon started threatening his managers after they reported
poor sales figures. In a July 6 e-mail, obtained by the Phoenix, Jablon
warned New England managers, "If you don't do what is asked of you, I have told
[General Manager] Shawn [Benevides] to Terminate your employment immediately,
bill you $3000 and have a nearby manager get the production commission for
subcontracting the jobs you have already lined up."
The next day, Matthew Myers, another New England general manager for
University Painters, warned in an e-mail that any outlet manager who missed an
appointment to make an estimate would be fined $100. Fines were not unusual. In
May, 11 managers, including Stapleton and Foster, were fined $25 for filing
late reports. And on July 25, Jablon made it more difficult to line up jobs,
Foster says, by ordering outlet managers to increase prices by 11 percent.
The upshot, Foster says, is that after billing $22,000 in business for
University Painters, he earned $100 a week while working 60-hour weeks.
Stapleton says he did about $18,000 of business. Other managers interviewed by
the Courant told similar stories of low earnings and unhelpful higher
ALTHOUGH THE painting season is winding to a close, managers still worry that
University Painters may use a clause in the company's employment contract to
put them solidly in the red for the summer. The contract, a copy of which was
obtained by the Phoenix, states that if a manager is no longer be
employed by University Painters on September 30, he owes the company $3000.
Robert Brooks, a partner in the Providence law firm of Adler, Pollock &
Sheehan, who specializes in labor and employment law, calls the sanction
"excessive." While penalties for quitting are not unusual, he says, courts tend
to rule that they must be related to a company's training costs and lost sales.
While a judge would likely enforce the provision if a manager quit immediately
after completing training, Brooks predicts, the judge would be disinclined to
do so if the manager was terminated for a lack of available work.
University Painters' contract also seeks to avoid any court review by
authorizing any lawyer to waive a manager's defense in court. And it empowers
University Painters to seize the manager's property without notice or a hearing
to satisfy the financial judgment (including the fees of the lawyer who waived
the manager's defense).
"That one is a new one on me," says Brooks. "It sounds ridiculous . . . My gut
reaction is to say a court would not enforce that provision, but some lawyer
The contract also bans former managers for University Painters from operating,
investing in or working for a different painting company for three years in the
continental United States. While non-competition clauses are common in some
industries, Brooks notes, it's unusual to see one for a low-skill field like
Companies have the right to protect unique computer software or a patented
manufacturing process, but courts balance that with a worker's right to make a
living. An employer must convince a judge that their contract is "reasonable"
in length and the geographic area covered, Brooks says, and that they have a
protectable interest, such as a unique way of gathering customers or painting
On its face, a ban on painting in the continental US, when University Painters
operates only on the East Coast, is unreasonable, Brooks says. So, he thinks,
is a three-year ban.
Overall, Brooks believes, "That company is going to be hard-pressed to have a
court enforce those provisions."
But one University Painter employee, who requested anonymity, thinks the
company knows exactly what it is doing when it quickly signs college students
to one-sided contracts. "They just think we're college kids, and they can take
advantage of us," he says, "and we have to go back to school and don't have
time to fight them."
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