You may remember, students thought they were competing on a reality TV show but it turned into a summer of hard work and money lost. Now, California Labor Commissioner Angela Bradstreet is investigating whether Firstline violated a host of state labor laws and she wants to hear from students who worked in California last summer.
This was the lure to thousands of college students last summer: Star on a reality show, win and become the prodigy. Receive $1 million dollars.
But instead, students wound up far from home selling home alarms door to door for Utah-based Firstline Security.
"Right off it was, 'hey you're going to be on TV' and then it's 'oh and you're going to be selling something, oh, and it's going to be door to door, oh, and it's going to be 10 hours a day, oh, and you're going to be in a different state," said
Arizona college students were sent to knock on doors in the Bay Area. Not only didn't they get rich, many wound up deep in debt.
"Everyone here who made $5,000 dollars raise your hand. [Nobody?] $4,000 dollars? $3,000 dollars?" asked Michael Finney.
"I got a backend, which is a paycheck... of d of negative $1,500 dollars. They said I owed the company $1,500 dollars," said Drew Cayner.
"Actually in debt, thousands and thousands of dollars, and still paying that off right now," said Moustafa Imam.
Firstline required sales people to work 10 hours a day, six days a week and live in company apartments.
"We'd pile into vans and they'd drop us off in neighborhoods communities we had never been in before," said Colin Greenbauer.
"We walked probably about five, six miles a day at least, knocking on doors because you know if we knocked 100 doors that's not enough, we weren't trying hard," said Sam Masucci.
Even with all those rules, the Firstline contract said they were independent contractors -- no hourly wages, no overtime, no worker's compensation.
"I got bit by a Rottweiler and the company didn't do anything. So now I'm still paying hospital bills off," said Imam.
But now the state of California says not so fast. No matter what the contract said, in the eyes of the law, it appears they may have been anything but independent.
"Because they're living in the employer's house, they're being told when they're going to work, when they're taking their breaks, when they're coming home," said Dean Fryer, a spokesman for State Labor Commissioner Angela Bradstreet. "They're really putting a lot of control on them. They must be paid overtime if they're working more than eight hours in a day. There has to be assurances that they are receiving their rest breaks and their meal breaks."
Students said there was none of that.
"If we took a lunch break for more than 10 minutes we weren't trying hard enough," said Masucci.
"It could very well be that the company is breaking laws," said Fryer. "The penalties can get quite steep."
Fryer said he alerted Commissioner Bradstreet about our reports.
"And she said that we have to look into this," said Fryer. "Anyone who's been put in this situation with Firstline Security to come forward to one of our offices."
Firstline filed for bankruptcy and is reorganizing with plans to stay in business. Students tell 7 On Your Side the company is already recruiting on college campuses for work next summer. Firstline owners referred our questions to their attorneys.
Bankruptcy attorney Adam Affleck did not address the potential labor law violations, but he said:
"Any complaints against Firstline would be addressed during the bankruptcy. The way to pay employees who worked their tails off last summer is to keep customer accounts. The company is trying to keep customers happy so it can pay its employees and other creditors."
The Labor Commissioner is asking former Firstline sales people to file reports documenting their hours and working conditions.
If you'd like to file a claim for back wages and penalties, see the links below: