Small Press Distribution, one of the nation’s oldest and largest distributors of independent publishers, is under fire in a widening dispute about labor conditions sparked by a former employee’s anonymous article on Medium. The former employee first posted the allegations of wage theft in early December, leading to a series of subsequent actions by current and former employees, including an open letter calling for the resignation of executive director Brent Cunningham.
As of January 4, the letter had more than 250 signatures.
The initial allegations stem from a months-long dispute in which the anonymous employee, who posts as “Damaged Book Worker”(DBW) wrote that they were underpaid in 2019 and 2020 to the tune of $4,000. The employee was first notified of a $2,000 pay discrepancy by the Berkeley-based distributor in September 2019. DBW then raised subsequent concerns in January 2020, leading to the discovery that an additional $2,000 had been withheld. DBW told PW that while they awaited payment they were forced to borrow money from a local church to afford rent.
Following the repayment, DBW said the company repeatedly failed to provide pay stubs noting wages and hours worked. The employee ultimately left SPD in February 2020, refusing to sign a severance agreement that included non-disclosure provisions.
“The NDA made it clear that they had no intention of looking into this, only in making it disappear,” DBW wrote. In April 2020, the employee filed a wage claim with the California Department of Industrial Relations. No action has been taken by the department.
In a statement released after the December 1 Medium post, SPD executive director Brent Cunningham, finance director Andrew Pai, and the company’s board of directors did not dispute the underpayment. They also disclosed that four other workers had been underpaid during the same period.
“SPD deeply regrets not only the payroll errors, but the terrible experience and lack of trust this caused for all of our employees,” they wrote. “We also want to acknowledge that our response to this incident insufficiently addressed other issues that have been raised, especially the critique of our workplace culture outlined in the piece.”
But within days, current and former employees fired back with an anonymous letter, calling the statement insufficient, and demanding that Cunningham resign or be removed by the board. “This is the least that can be done to show that the Board takes the issues at hand seriously and to recognize the sacrifices of former employees who were fired or left in frustration over these issues,” the employees wrote.
The back-and-forth has occurred amid further claims, also made anonymously by current and former employees, about Cunningham’s leadership. In them, as with the employee letter, workers allege ongoing workplace abuses. Cunningham's removal has become a sticking point between the board and employees.
In a call with PW, SPD board president Alan Bernheimer said the board was working to address the many issues that have been raised. “There have been serious allegations made, both in the original piece on Medium and since then, some of which verge on [the] criminal," Berhnheimer said. "The organization has been accused of wage theft, of harassment, of bullying, and retaliation. And the board has an obligation to take these very, very seriously, and to investigate thoroughly and see if there's any evidence beyond the allegations.”
Bernheimer said that the board lacks the expertise to credibly undertake such an investigation. They are hiring an outside investigator and are also bringing in a mediator to work with employees. But Bernheimer said efforts to secure both were hampered by the holidays. While acknowledging that the pace was frustrating for many, he said it was also necessary for a thorough review.
“That's what we've said we're going to do, and we have to do that,” Bernheimer said. “We owe it to the organization. We owe it to the current and former employees to do this responsibly, and to find out what evidence there is of anything, to weigh it, and to come to the proper conclusions.”
Bernheimer has committed to attending staff meetings, and said that employees had produced a series of proposals for the company’s long-term reorganization at a December meeting that could be the basis for a way forward. But he emphasized that the board is unable to meet its obligation for review and action with the swiftness demanded by current and former employees.
“We realize we have not been working fast enough to satisfy some of the critics, but we simply can't respond at the speed of Twitter and of social media that wants instant solutions and instant remedies.”
For their part, while Damaged Book Worker will not be in the room for upcoming staff meetings, they told PW that, “anything less than [Cunningham’s] immediate removal is not just unacceptable to me, or to all of the workers and members of the public who wouldn’t find it acceptable—it would neglect the safety of all the marginalized people who work for him now or would have to work for him in the future.”