Tacoma athletic club employees say they're not being paid

Staff writerNovember 22, 2013 

Employees of a Tacoma athletic club say their paychecks are bouncing, and several haven’t been paid in weeks. 

Eight current and former employees of the Lincoln Plaza Athletic Club have told The News Tribune about multiple payment problems dating back at least six weeks. Some have deposited their paycheck into their personal account on a Friday only to have the funds removed on a Monday. Others took their paychecks to the issuing bank, where tellers advised the employees that the business account was empty and that they should request a money order from their boss instead.

“We all got a paycheck on November 14th. No one’s check cleared,” said Lesa Bryant, who was an instructor at the club until Thursday when the owner told her she was banned from the building. Bryant presumes the ban is because she’s organizing her current and former colleagues to file formal complaints. 

As of Friday, Bryant said she had 15 employees, including herself, willing to meet next week with a Tacoma attorney. She said she knows of almost 40 who haven’t been paid. She also is arranging meetings through the weekend to help people fill out wage complaint forms for the state Department of Labor & Industries.

Owner Sam Adams, reached on his cellphone Friday morning, said he had no comment on the allegations, explaining over the course of two minutes why he had no time to discuss the matter. He then offered the paper “an exclusive” if the interview could wait until Monday.

Adams, a former Seahawks player, bought the Tacoma club in the summer of 2012 after the former operator, AllStar Fitness, filed for bankruptcy. The Tacoma club operated for a short time as a Gold’s Gym.

Under the umbrella of Oregon Athletic Clubs, Adams owns five other fitness clubs in Oregon and Washington, including the West Seattle Athletic Club. Earlier this month, The Oregonian reported that the landlord of the Duniway club in southwest Portland, Ore., evicted the gym after the rent check bounced and the gym didn’t pay the heating bill.

Public records indicate the Lincoln Plaza Athletic Club owes the state of Washington almost $73,000 in unpaid taxes, as well as almost $23,000 to Pierce County for taxes during the time Adams has owned the gym. County records indicate an even higher debt, since the last payment it received was in November 2009.

Bryant said employees were excited when Adams took over.

“It’s one of the nicest gyms in the area,” she said of the facility at 31 Montana Ave., which is behind the Lincoln Plaza shopping center on South 38th Street. The gym building is visible from the Tacoma Costco. It’s 70,000 square feet, and originally was a theater complex before AllStar Fitness renovated it in 2007.

Despite the gym’s financial problems, it continues to sign up new members. A reporter from The News Tribune witnessed a new member signing up on Wednesday, which Bryant said was the first day the gym had opened that week after being closed for a water problem.

Bryant and other employees said in recent weeks that exercise equipment and TVs had disappeared overnight, only to re-appear days later. Customers reacted, she said.

“People started canceling their memberships. And when they went to the front desk, the printer was gone,” she said.

Bryant was the only employee willing to be identified by name for this report. Other employees, current and former, were fearful of the consequences of complaining publicly. Former employees didn’t want their current bosses to think they were troublemakers. Current employees were fearful of losing their jobs – jobs that by their own accounts haven’t provided steady pay for weeks.

The state Department of Labor & Industries investigates every complaint that comes in, said spokesman Dana Botka. L&I has 16 wage investigators, and in fiscal year 2013 it collected $3.2 million in back wages for approximately 3,700 workers, Botka said. That averages out to about $865 a person.

When an employee files a complaint, the department notifies the employer and tries to resolve the issue without a citation. Some of the Lincoln Plaza employees initially balked at filing a complaint because, as part of the agency’s initial attempts at a resolution, the agency tells the business owner the name of the person complaining.

This is necessary because L&I is a neutral party and everyone deserves due process, said Lynne Buchanan, an agency program manager. Also, the agency doesn’t want pay records for every employee, just the one who has asked for help.

“If the employer owes money, he or she needs to know who to write the check to. They don’t write it to us,” she said.

“An employee has to be willing to take certain steps to help themselves,” Buchanan said. “The good thing is, we have a three-year statute of limitations here from the time wages are owed that they can file a wage complaint.”

Three years is plenty of time for someone to find a new job, she said, then file a complaint against a previous employer. If fault is found, the agency will tack on interest.

To help investigators, people should document wage problems, including canceled checks, notices of insufficient funds, and pay stubs. It can be tedious.

“Everyone was getting the feeling we had to fight for what we worked for, which was super unnecessary,” one former club employee said.

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