Pay at the Pump
Marilyn Forrest managed the Bradley Petroleum filling station at 8875 Washington Street in Thornton for almost three years. She only made $6.50 an hour, but she was a conscientious person who often worked more than sixty hours a week without a day off to cover for employees who missed their shifts. Her bosses at company headquarters took notice: Although they turned down her numerous requests for a raise, they scrawled notes on the sporadic sales reports that were delivered to her station, saying things such as "Good job, Marilyn, cigarette sales are soaring."
As the manager, Forrest was responsible for depositing the store's daily earnings at North Valley Bank. The company policy was for managers to deposit Friday's earnings on Saturday morning and to leave Saturday's earnings in the bank's locked after-hours depository on Sunday. Forrest tried to follow this policy, but despite her repeated requests for a key to the depository, Bradley Petroleum owner Bradley Calkins never gave her one, she says.
So on Mondays, Forrest would leave work after her shift ended at 2:30 p.m. and head to the bank with two days' worth of deposits; if Monday was a bank holiday, she'd have to make her deposit on Tuesday, with three days' worth of earnings. The checks and loose cash were carried in green zippered bags the size of a large manila envelope.
"Brad's edict was to make the deposit immediately after my shift," Forrest says. "Anyone could watch me; it was so static -- anyone with a brain would know when I was leaving and what I was carrying."
On Monday, May 3, 1999, someone was watching.
Even though the bank was only two blocks from the gas station, Forrest didn't dare walk; that day, she was carrying more than $13,000. As she approached her car, which was parked next to the station, she noticed a man sitting on the chain-link fence separating the station from the adjacent business. The man stood up, walked toward Forrest, then asked her for the time.
"I don't have a watch. Go ask at the window," she told him, nodding toward the cashier's window at the gas station.
"What time is it?" the man asked again, inching closer. Forrest clutched the bag of money and didn't have time to answer before he said, "I'll take your money."
"No you won't," she spat back.
The man had a gun hidden in his coat sleeve, and he jammed the butt into her ribs, grabbed the money bag and ran. Forrest screamed at the cashier to call 911 and waited for the police.
After they took her statement, she called Bradley Petroleum's main office, at 105 South Cherokee Street, and left messages for Bradley Calkins and his father, George, the company's vice president. A few minutes later, George Calkins called back, and after the cashier explained what had happened, Calkins fired Forrest on the spot, claiming she'd violated company policy by carrying more than a day's worth of deposits.
Shocked and shaken, Forrest went home. On Friday -- payday -- she returned to the gas station to pick up her final check, but it wasn't there. For two days, she repeatedly left messages, but no one returned her calls. Finally, a secretary answered and told Forrest that the company had decided to withhold her paycheck for the last two weeks and two days she'd worked. Forrest filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Labor, and on June 2, she sent Bradley Petroleum a letter demanding her paycheck. After a few weeks passed with no word, Forrest started looking for an attorney, but the first five attorneys she contacted refused to take her case. And who could blame them? If Forrest prevailed, the payoff would be peanuts; if she lost, she wouldn't have enough money to pay the attorney's fees.
Forrest called a friend who worked at a nearby Sav-O-Mat store, a chain of convenience stores that are also owned by Bradley Calkins, and learned that an employee there knew of an attorney who had taken on similar cases. By the time Forrest reached David Lichtenstein, the lawyer had already handled seven cases against Bradley Petroleum and Sav-O-Mat. "The more I learned about this company, the more my ears perked up when I heard complaints from people working for them," Lichtenstein says.
In mid-July, Forrest finally heard from Bradley Petroleum, but it wasn't the response she expected. The company was serving her with papers informing her that it was suing her for $13,106 -- the amount that had been stolen.
Lichtenstein recommended filing a countersuit; otherwise, Forrest says, she would have had to declare bankruptcy to avoid paying back the stolen money. Finally, on August 3, 1999, a few days after Lichtenstein filed the counterclaim, Bradley Petroleum paid her. But even then, a week's worth of pay was missing from the check, she says. So Lichtenstein went back to court, claiming that since Bradley Petroleum had held her pay for three months, the company not only owed her wages, but up to 200 percent of her pay (the state Wage Act states that when pay is wrongfully withheld, an employer must pay penalties). In February, Bradley Petroleum settled for $3,500. "I feel vindicated since I got my wages and a little for emotional distress," Forrest says.
The attorney who represented Bradley Petroleum in the Marilyn Forrest case, Peter Robinson of Slivka Robinson Waters & O'Dorisio, didn't return phone calls from Westword.
Although Forrest won the case, the ordeal took a toll on her that can't be measured in dollars. For a month after the robbery, she wouldn't leave home for fear of running into the man who'd robbed her (police never caught him). Forrest, who is 53 and the mother of two adult children, also lost faith in employers and, to some extent, herself. "To have someone say you can't have the money that you earned legitimately," she says, "your self-esteem goes right in the stinker." A victim's advocate with the Thornton Police Department recommended a therapist to help Forrest deal with depression, and for several months, she collected unemployment assistance. After seven months, she finally got another job, this time at a bank.
Forrest wasn't alone, however. Aside from being robbed at gunpoint, her story -- the accusations that she broke company policy, her firing and the struggle to reclaim her pay -- is nearly identical to what scores of other Bradley Petroleum employees have reported since Bradley Calkins started doing business 26 years ago.
Former and current employees of Bradley Petroleum, many of whom have worked at other filling stations or know people who have, claim that Bradley is harder on its employees than any other company of its kind. Other gas stations, they say, don't accuse employees of stealing every time there's an inventory or cash shortage; other stations have policies for handling the occasional gas drive-off or cigarette theft.
Cases on file at the Colorado Department of Labor support these claims. In 1999, there were 41 complaints filed against Bradley Petroleum/Sav-O-Mat with the state labor department, a significant figure when compared to the number of complaints filed against much larger national petroleum companies that operate filling stations in the state. Bradley Calkins owns forty stations in Colorado, according to information supplied by the company, the majority of which are Bradley Petroleum stores and have a reputation for selling some of the cheapest gas around. He also owns gas stations in Wyoming and New Mexico. The big-name petroleum companies, on the other hand, each operate more than a hundred stations in Colorado.
The majority of complaints on file at the labor department concern withheld wages. There was only one complaint filed against Sinclair in 1999, three against Total, four against Amoco, seven against Conoco, and eleven against Texaco. Gasamat, which has only ten stations in the state, had no complaints in 1999.
So far this year, Bradley Petroleum/Sav-O-Mat has had 21 complaints; Amoco has had one; and Conoco, Texaco and Total each have had two. Gasamat and Sinclair haven't had any.
Labor department director Mary Blue warns that the figures aren't a true measure of wage violations since her department doesn't record how many of those complaints are valid and how many are frivolous. The department doesn't keep track of the number of complaints filed before 1999, either, but there is evidence that Bradley Petroleum has a history of withholding employees' pay.
The labor department investigated the company in 1995 after receiving at least 33 complaints from employees who claimed they'd been fired and then denied their final paychecks. "Once we receive three complaints, we don't wait for the fourth one to do an investigation; there is no threshold. We can receive one or two serious complaints or a dozen small complaints before deciding to investigate," says Labor Department spokesman Bill Thoennes, adding that the department was moved to action in 1995 by "the sheer volume and similarity of complaints [about Bradley Petroleum]. They all had to do with not being paid a final check, and in almost all of them, Bradley Petroleum was alleging theft."
State investigators reviewed the company's payroll records and determined that in many cases, Bradley Petroleum had violated the state's Wage Act by withholding final paychecks. The labor department served Bradley Petroleum with a "show cause order" in February 1996, informing the company that if it didn't respond to the complaints, penalties would be assessed. Instead of participating in a hearing on the matter, Calkins asked to hold a settlement conference with the labor department where he agreed to pay 33 former employees who had filed wage claims. In addition, Bradley Petroleum paid a $20,000 fine. "We have been successful in locating almost every employee who was entitled to back wages," Labor Standards Director Carlos Renteria was quoted as saying in a press release issued after the settlement. "And I'm pleased to report that Bradley Petroleum is fully complying with this settlement agreement and our office has received no further reports of violations."
But that was 1996, and things don't seem to have gotten any easier for employees since then. David Lichtenstein alone has handled eight cases against the company. (He has talked with another attorney who represented an employee whom Bradley Petroleum had accused of stealing. That case was settled, but the attorney declined to discuss it, citing a confidentiality agreement he'd reached with the company.) Lichtenstein even represented two employees who claimed they'd been fired because they had been subpoenaed as witnesses in another case against the company. "I truly feel that the philosophy this company operates under is that any losses [to the company] are the employees' fault," says Lichtenstein, who won three of his cases; the other five were settled out of court.
Neither Bradley Calkins nor his father returned repeated calls from Westword.
Perhaps no one knows what it's like to work for Bradley Calkins better than Levern Gaylord.
Gaylord, who at 66 has been worn thin and frail by the health problems he's endured since undergoing a heart transplant last June, takes on renewed energy when he talks about his twelve years working as a district manager for Sav-O-Mat, a subsidiary of Bradley Petroleum. He speaks fondly about driving across Colorado and New Mexico to the thirteen stations he oversaw and says he got a feeling of fulfillment from turning around underperforming stations and boosting their sales by cleaning them up and making food and merchandise displays more attractive to customers.
Gaylord had been a manager and supervisor for Sinclair for ten years and then briefly worked as a salesman at an electronics store and a department store. But he didn't like sales, so when he saw an ad for the Sav-O-Mat position, he applied. After he was hired in October 1986, he worked under a general manager named Ted. At the time, the company was expanding its gas stations in New Mexico into full-fledged convenience stores.
"He was a buffer between me and Brad," Gaylord says of Ted. "Brad told Ted that if the stores in New Mexico didn't look good -- if they weren't clean -- he'd fire me, the manager or both. Well, Ted wanted no part of that, and he quit because of Brad's attitude, so I had to start dealing with Brad and George directly."
Like many others who have worked for the Calkinses over the years, Gaylord has nothing bad to say about Bradley's father, George. The elder Calkins started Sav-O-Mat with a partner in 1967, but Bradley Calkins bought out his father's partner and became company president in the mid-1980s.
Gaylord is one of the few employees who have ever even seen Bradley Calkins; he says Calkins deals with his staff over the phone because he's afraid that a disgruntled employee will shoot him. Calkins keeps the entrance to his Denver headquarters locked. The 58-year-old businessman owns a home in Cherry Hills that's assessed at more than $700,000 and, according to Gaylord, is married and has three children. He also heads Bradley Motor Sports, the racing team for which his 29-year-old son, Indy racer Bradley "Buzz" Calkins Jr., drives. As involved as Calkins is in running Bradley Petroleum, Gaylord says the most important thing in his boss's life is car racing, and he's away from the office a lot, pursuing this expensive hobby and traveling to different cities for his son's races. "His toys come first," Gaylord says. (Buzz Calkins placed 18th out of 33 in the Indy 500 over the Memorial Day weekend.)
Not much else is known about the seemingly private man; he sits on no known boards or commissions. Dan Greenwood, who works at Pikes Peak International Raceway, says he doesn't know Calkins very well but that he thinks he is a "great guy."
Gaylord might use a different adjective to describe him. The Sav-O-Mat stores Gaylord was in charge of were dirty and dilapidated when he was hired, and he takes credit for turning them into profitable ventures. But his hard work was never appreciated, he says; he rarely got raises, the company had no retirement plan, and when Bradley Calkins took over, he stopped providing medical insurance for employees' family members. In the twelve years Gaylord worked for the company, only three times did he take a weeklong vacation. When he approached the state labor department for help, he says officials there called Bradley Petroleum to try to get vacation time for him but that nothing came of it.
"The labor department is absolutely useless. They'll phone and write to the company, but they have no power to do anything," Gaylord says, echoing the sentiments of Marilyn Forrest and other former employees who ran into similar dead ends trying to reclaim wages after turning to the department.
Labor department spokesman Thoennes admits the agency can only do so much. "We go as far as we can statutorily, and we don't have enough compliance officers to do a full investigation on every complaint. We have fewer than twenty compliance officers to deal with 7,000 calls a month," he says.
When the labor department receives a phone call or formal letter of complaint about a company, a compliance officer fills out a wage claim form on behalf of the employee, then contacts the employer and asks for his side of the story. "In 80 percent of the cases, the problem is resolved then; it's usually just a misunderstanding between the employee and employer," Thoennes says. "If the employer doesn't respond, though, we send them a letter asking them to rectify the situation. If the problem is still not resolved, we let the claimant know we made an effort, and if we think the claim is legitimate, we tell them to bring it to small claims court."
But Gaylord continued to work for Sav-O-Mat because he liked the job itself. And while it didn't make him rich, it brought in enough to support his five sons -- each of whom has worked for Bradley Petroleum at one time or another -- and make the mortgage payments on his small home in Lakewood's Green Mountain neighborhood.
After eight years, Gaylord was fired. A new general manager had finally been hired to replace Ted, whose responsibilities Gaylord had assumed even though he never got the title or pay increase to match. The new manager, he says, wanted full control over the Sav-O-Mat stores Gaylord had been running and was looking for any excuse to get rid of him. So he told Calkins that Gaylord had instructed a store manager to cover a shortage by padding the cash register with her own money. Gaylord denies that he ever had did that, but admits that he often had no choice but to go against Calkins's wishes. "One time he told me to fire 57 employees [at various stores], but I only fired 52; otherwise, there wouldn't have been anyone left to run the stores," he says.
For the next few months, Gaylord worked at a small gas-station chain called Gas 4 Less, but when Bradley Petroleum's general manager left, Calkins called Gaylord and asked him to come back at a higher salary. Gaylord agreed.
At around the same time, two of Gaylord's sons -- Alan, who was managing a Bradley Petroleum store in Conifer, and Scott, who was running Sav-O-Mat stores in Burlington and Castle Rock -- brought their own lawsuit against Calkins's company, this time in U.S. District Court. Alan Gaylord had been fired and rehired many times ("He lost track after it got into the teens," Levern Gaylord says wryly), but finally quit for good after the company docked his pay to make up for bad checks customers had written.
Alan Gaylord was the one who got the federal court case going by contacting five Sav-O-Mat managers in 1994. The six employees claimed they had routinely worked more than 54 hours a week and that Calkins's two companies were violating the federal Fair Labor Standards Act by not paying them overtime. To be successful, Lichtenstein, who also represented the Gaylords, had to prove that they were not considered by law to be salaried employees and therefore were not expected to work more than forty hours a week without getting paid time and a half.
Some of the plaintiffs reported that money had been deducted from their paychecks; others "knew that their paychecks were subject to docking for shortages, and therefore routinely used their own money to repay store shortages," according to one of the plaintiffs' briefs.
In fact, according to court documents, all store managers were required to sign an employment agreement that stated: "I agree to perform the company's rules, regulations and instructions relating to the safekeeping of money, merchandise and other property, and agree to be responsible for all loss, including those occurring by theft, burglary or robbery...I agree to repay any such loss or shortage not deducted from my pay check on demand, and agree to pay interest at 18% per annum from the date of any such demand, and to reimburse the company for reasonable attorney's fees incurred in the event legal proceedings are commenced for the collection of any such shortage."
That practice helped Lichtenstein show that the employees did not qualify as salaried. According to federal law, an employee is considered to be salaried if he receives a set pay that "is not subject to reduction because of variations in the quality or quantity of the work performed." Lichtenstein argued that the pay deductions his clients had suffered were in fact based on the "quality and quantity of the plaintiffs' work as store managers."
But Lichtenstein never had to make his case in court, because Bradley Petroleum/Sav-O-Mat settled in 1996; the terms of the settlement, however, are confidential.
Althea Banjoff, one of the plaintiffs in that case, never met Bradley Calkins until she joined the federal suit. But she knew his wrath all too well. Banjoff, who now manages a storage facility, started working for Sav-O-Mat in July 1991. In the four years she managed the company's Thornton store, she was fired twice. The first time, she was let go over cigarette shortages at the store, so she went to work for Gas 4 Less.
"After a week or two, Sav-O-Mat had a crisis at the store and they didn't have anyone who could run it like I could. When I started working there, the [Thornton] store was a total pigpen. I came in there and cleaned it up, and business increased tenfold. It was one of the most fun jobs I've had, so I was heartbroken when I got fired. It was tragic, because I was making good money for the company with that station," she says.
Banjoff and her employees seldom reported when cigarette cartons were stolen; instead, they would clip cigarette coupons from the newspaper and put them in the register to account for the loss. In addition to using coupons, Banjoff estimates that she added $1,000 to the register over the years to cover up shortages.
A year later, she was laid off again when Calkins did a clean sweep of managers in stores from Sterling to Evergreen. "It was a joke. You didn't know from one day to the next if you'd be fired. They took $400 out of my check the second time I was fired, and I never got that money back," Banjoff adds. But she never filed a complaint with the Department of Labor or considered suing until Alan Gaylord contacted her.
Not long after that case was settled, Levern Gaylord was fired a second time. He can't remember the reason Calkins gave him, but he believes it was retribution for the lawsuit his son had brought against the company.
He went back to Gas 4 Less, and "Bradley Petroleum got along without me for about ten months," he says, and then, amazingly, hired him back. "Three Sav-O-Mats and ten Bradley Petroleum stores had closed while I was gone. I came back and reopened them. When I came back, the personnel manager said, I guess he's forgiven you for Alan.'"
So is Levern Gaylord a glutton for punishment? "When you're in your sixties, who's going to hire you? Who's going to pay the medical bills? You put up with a lot more the older you get," he explains, adding that he had developed a loyalty to the individual store managers over the years. He also had developed a sense of pride, which made walking away more difficult. "I had worked hard to build up Sav-O-Mat."
And so he went back to Sav-O-Mat and worked and worked with no time off. In December 1998, he started feeling weak and was looking forward to taking some time off around Christmas. But then Bradley Calkins fired the manager at one of the Greeley Sav-O-Mat stores and wanted Gaylord to take over. "George [Calkins] told me to forgo my vacation and that Brad would make it up to me," he says.
And so he did. Two days after Christmas, Gaylord had a heart attack. Just after he got out of the hospital, Bradley Calkins called Gaylord and told him to fire everyone in the Fort Morgan Sav-O-Mat. A couple of days later, Gaylord explained that he didn't do it because there wouldn't have been anyone left to run the store and that he was too sick to run it himself. "He yelled and screamed at me and said, Why don't you quit.' So I left. That was it. He'd say I quit, but I was fired," Gaylord says.
Gaylord's wife, Adda, who has also worked for Bradley Petroleum for many years, was fired a month after her husband. She's now working at a Texaco station, where she's much happier. "They have a button on the cash register that you press when there's a drive-off. I've never been yelled at once there for having a drive-off. If you had one at Bradley, he thought you were stealing money," she says. "At Texaco, they treat driveoffs as part of the cost of doing business. Brad never thinks they should have any costs of doing business -- someone else should always pay."
Since Gaylord left the company, his health has deteriorated. Last June he got a heart transplant, but recovery has been slow. He's on more drugs than he can count -- bottles upon bottles of pills lay scattered across his coffee table and overflow boxes in his living room. An I.V. rack is never far from where he sits. His wife's income and his Social Security payments aren't enough to cover his mounting medical bills.
Desperate for money and afraid he'll be unable to find the same-paying work elsewhere, Levern Gaylord is considering returning to Bradley Petroleum.
"I saw that man literally give his life to that company," Jessie Davis says of Gaylord.
Davis has known and admired Levern Gaylord for more than a decade. He spent a lot of time helping her at the Sav-O-Mat store in Sterling, where she's worked as a manager off and on for fifteen years; she's gotten just two raises in all those years, and only because Gaylord fought to get them for her. When Gaylord's heart condition worsened, Davis took over for him and supervised stores in Longmont, Fort Morgan, Greeley, and Casper, Wyoming.
Davis was well aware of the fear Calkins instilled in his employees; often, she put her own money in the register to cover shortages. Even though she regularly works 77 hours a week and has had only one week's vacation in the last three years, she has always considered herself lucky; for the most part, Calkins has left her alone.
But her luck began to change last October. That's when Calkins sent Davis to New Mexico to reopen one of the Sav-O-Mat stores that had closed. She had to pull her two sons, ages twelve and fourteen, out of school because she had no one to care for them at home. She blames her job and its demands on her time for her 1998 divorce. "This job cost me my marriage of seventeen years. I always had to work and forfeit my vacations because I couldn't find anyone to cover my shifts. My husband thought that I thought my job was more important than our relationship," she says.
While she was in New Mexico, Calkins tried to page her, but Davis claims she never received the messages because her pager range didn't extend beyond Colorado. When she returned to Sterling, she says Calkins fired her and withheld a month's worth of pay.
Two weeks later, she says, George Calkins begged her to come back and promised to resolve everything. So she did. But in March, the trouble started again. Davis, who had recently become engaged to another man, had to take a day off to visit her fiancé in a Laramie, Wyoming, hospital. She had an employee run the store while she was away. After she left, Calkins called the store. When he found out Davis wasn't there, he reportedly told the employee on duty to call Davis and tell her that he was going to report her to the police for collecting a paycheck without working.
"You can be there 24-7, but as soon as you step out the door, he calls to check up on you," Davis says. "That's how he operates; he practices intimidation in the company."
Two months ago, Davis finally took a vacation, which she says was approved by George Calkins, but Bradley contended that her time off hadn't been authorized. While she was away, an inventory shortage was discovered (Davis believes it was a bookkeeping mistake at the Denver office), and so the company withheld $670 from her check. "I had to pay my light bill at home, and the check bounced because there was no money in my account. Now my car is being repossessed," she says. With Lichtenstein's help, she recovered her wages, but it took six weeks.
Davis was planning to quit her job soon; in fact, she would have quit a long time ago if she would have been able to find comparable work that paid the same ($1,800 a month) in Sterling. But what happened on Friday, May 26, caught her by surprise. Sav-O-Mat's district manager came to the store Friday morning and fired Davis for allegedly falsifying her time reports and for not being in the store the previous Monday. Davis denies both accusations. "Why would I need to falsify my time reports? I'm on salary," she says. As for the company's second claim, Davis says she was in the store on Monday, May 22, but that if someone from the Denver headquarters had tried to call, they would not have gotten an answer, because the main phone line was down. Davis was supposed to get paid on Saturday, but she says the company withheld her final paycheck. She doesn't know what she'll do now; although she was planning to leave, she hadn't yet started applying for other jobs. "I just know I'll never go back to work for them again," she says.
She hopes what happened to her will discourage other people from putting up with what she did. She doubts that working conditions at Bradley Petroleum and Sav-O-Mat stores will improve.
Says Davis sadly, "It will never change."
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