In-home sellers charge Kirby with deception

Former schedulers and sales representatives of The Kirby Co. in Connecticut filed a lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court alleging that the vacuum manufacturer and its Orange-based distributor failed to pay a lawful wage and engaged in fraudulent hiring and recruitment practices.

New Haven Legal Assistance filed the class-action lawsuit with the names of seven plaintiffs against Kirby, Orange distributor S.Z. Enterprises Inc. and distributorship owner Scott Zabka. But an attorney for the legal services agency said it expects to represent hundreds of people as the action moves ahead. The lawsuit does not cover current or former Kirby workers in eastern Connecticut.

"The defendants in this case have taken advantage of hundreds, if not thousands, of low-income people in New Haven County," Shelley White, litigation director for the agency, said in a statement. "Our office has committed to fight the exploitation of low-wage workers."

The suit alleges that Kirby had promised sales representatives $500 to $800 a week in wages, but failed to deliver even close to that amount. The most any of the plaintiffs received, according to the suit, was $200 for three weeks of work, though one plaintiff who received $25 for four weeks of work got extra compensation after complaining to the state Department of Labor.

The suit said Kirby kept wages down by promising bonuses for representatives who concluded 15 product demonstrations a week, but then failed to schedule enough in-home appointments for people to qualify. Likewise, appointment schedulers were promised bonuses for setting up a certain number of demonstrations but then were sent home early before they could complete the task, the suit said.

"Plaintiffs and other employees hoping to earn a living during hard times held on until they were either broke or figured the business for a scam," the suit said.

The lawsuit is the latest salvo against Kirby, which is owned by the Ohio-based Scott Fetzer Co. Earlier this year, Kirby and its Connecticut vacuum distributors, including Taftville's GP Industries of Norwich Inc., settled charges levied by the state alleging unfair sales practices, agreeing to pay a $25,000 fine and to stop high-pressure tactics.

Last year, the state Department of Consumer Protection charged some Kirby representatives with refusing to leave customers' homes during sales calls and targeting older residents who sometimes felt intimidated by aggressive, high-pressure tactics.

"Kirby and S.Z. Enterprises utilize recruiting, hiring and employment policies that are well-designed to take advantage of the so-called jobless recovery," said James Bhandary-Alexander, attorney for the plaintiffs, in a statement. "Low-wage workers are facing desperate times, and Kirby monopolizes on that by lying to them, stringing them along, and ultimately paying them nothing for their work."

l.howard@theday.com

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