Small Press Distribution has hired a workplace investigation and mediation firm following allegations of wage and discrimination issues by current and former employees. The move is the first in a series of steps that were promised earlier this month by the board of the Berkeley-based non-profit book distributor.
In an announcement to employees, SPD’s board said the company has picked Oppenheimer Investigations Group to conduct a full review of SPD's practices. The board members emphasized the neutrality of OIG’s mandate.
“There is absolutely no expectation or directive about the course their findings may take,” the board wrote, “Although they are a law firm, their focus is not litigation; rather they act exclusively in a neutral capacity, helping organizations through difficulties like ours. OIG’s role is not as an advocate for SPD management or their interests. The goal is simple, to objectively assess the facts.”
This week, OIG is conducting voluntary one-on-one interviews with employees. Information from those interviews will be anonymized and incorporated in a report that will include findings and recommendations. SPD has committed to sharing that report with all employees.
Allegations of wage theft first appeared online in early December, when a former employee posted an anonymous Medium piece detailing two instances in which the company underpaid them to the tune of $4,000. The revelations gave way to an acrimonious back-and-forth in which current and former employees charged that SPD’s executive director, Brent Cunningham, presided over a toxic and exploitative work environment. The California Department of Industrial Relations is looking into the initial complaint.
In early January, board president Alan Bernheimer expressed sympathy for concerns raised by employees, along with an eagerness to verify complaints and overhaul the organizational structure of SPD. But Bernheimer also said that the company could not move as swiftly as demanded by the employees, pointing to the holidays as one impediment to bringing an outside firm on board to provide a review.
OIG is poised to make up for that lost time, with the report due by the end of February at latest. In their letter, the board wrote that, “The conclusions reached in the assessment will be the basis for mediation, conflict resolution, and any actions by the board.”
"The board knows we need to rebuild trust given the time that its taken," Bernheimer told PW. Part of that rebuilding will occur when the report is issued and a restorative process begins between staff and management. At that time, SPD will take up long-term issues, including any changes to the the company's organizational structure. "We will definitely look at the org chart question, and that may be an issue for the mediation and conflict resolution stage, because that really needs to be a discussion amongst all of us, the board and the staff," Bernheimer said.
Among the actions SPD has already committed to is an expansion of the board itself. That promise was reiterated in the letter, in which board members solicited suggestions from employees for candidates who “reflect new voices with expertise on social justice and the modern workers movement.”
Jacob Smullyan, publisher of Sagging Meniscus Press, said that an overhaul within the company would be a welcome sign to publishers like his, which are distributed by SPD. “I think there are other symptoms of the [workplace] problems in the organization, especially in the functionality it delivers. There is a mismatch between the model they have and the actual needs of the presses they serve.”
For that reason, Smullyan said the OIG review was a positive sign, but that he wants to see where it leads. “The key metric will be...what does the staff think about this process,” Smullyen said.
This article has been updated with a corrected spelling of Jacob Smullyan's name.