It’s been a little over three months since Whitefish-based Potter’s Field Ministries and its affiliated burger chain closed down amid allegations of psychological and emotional abuse.
For the first time, workers are providing detailed documents outlining how they also worked 240-plus hours per month for as little as $300. The state labor department is now investigating.
In the summer of 2017, then-18-year-old Conner Strong says he found himself working long hours in a Mudman Burgers food truck. He’d just returned from a mission trip to Guatemala with Potter’s Field as part of its tuition-based IGNITE missionary school.
"The food truck was brand new and that’s all I did was the food truck. Our hours were absurd, could be reaching 90 hours a week at some points on rare occasions, but it did happen."
Strong says he eventually worked 70 hours per week at one of Potter’s Field’s three Mudman Burger restaurants in the Flathead Valley for $300 per month, a $50 Safeway gift card and shared housing in Whitefish.
The ministry says it used the fast-food chain as part of an internship program for returning missionary students and to raise money for international missionary trips.
Shortly after the ministry and the restaurants closed their doors in July, 13 former workers, including Strong, filed wage claims with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.
The claims allege Potters Field violated federal labor laws by asking employees to volunteer for work they otherwise were paid for and requiring them to work more than 60 hours per week. These asks are outlined in what Potter’s Field calls internship agreements and workers call hiring documents.
Through a public records request, MTPR gained access to five of the claims the state is investigating, totaling nearly $120,000 in alleged unpaid wages. The Labor Department is investigating nine claims in all that were filed within the statute of limitations.
Sharon DiMuro, who is not licensed to practice law in Montana, is Potter’s Field’s legal consultant.
"When the claims were made, we disputed the claims," she says.
The ministry argues most of the claimants were interns who fell under a state exemption allowing employers to partially reimburse volunteers who are not regular employees. Potter’s Field interns received regular paychecks ranging from roughly $300 to $1,500 per month and paid taxes, but DiMuro says those paychecks were stipends.
"These kids were not employees, they were interns who signed up for a program and were told upfront, 'Hey you’re going to work 40 hours, plus 20 volunteer hours.'"
It’s illegal under federal law for an employer to ask employees to volunteer time doing duties they’re normally paid to do. According to timesheets Potter’s Field provided to the Labor Department, interns were regularly scheduled for 70-hour workweeks without explanation which hours were paid and which were volunteered.
The current head of the Potter’s Field board and DiMuro acknowledge the agreements they had interns sign were legally questionable.
"Unfortunately, the nonprofit ministry didn’t have the fortitude to look, or the foreknowledge to go seek advice of a labor attorney before they set this up, so they didn’t realize that there could be a conflict if you ask someone to do volunteer hours the same place their paycheck is earned."
According to two of the wage claims, Potter’s Field sought legal counsel on the matter in early 2019 after at least three years of operating its internship program. It then began paying an hourly rate and limiting interns to 40-hour workweeks. Potter’s Field says the internship agreements should hold up since the ministry was unaware of the law and they were willingly signed by program participants.
Al Ekblad is the executive secretary of Montana workers union AFL-CIO. The union is not involved in these cases, but Ekblad explains that ignorance isn’t a legal defense and says the labor agreements likely won’t hold up.
"I do not believe under the law an individual under the law can sign away their right to have their compensation regulated by wage and hour laws or minimum wage."
Ekblad contends that the fact that workers received regular paychecks and were issued work schedules undercuts the argument that they were either volunteers or interns.
The ministry says its internship program benefitted those who went through it by getting them ready for long hours in the missionary field. Even though Strong, who we heard from earlier, eventually made about $1,200 per month, he questions whether that was the real intent.
"But if we were all getting paid dirt cheap, then I don’t know where the rest of the money was going."
According to documents filed with the Department of Labor and Industry, Mudman Burgers grossed more than $500,000 annually. Its parent nonprofits took in a combined $3.2 million, according to 2016 tax documents, though Potter’s Field says its expenses outweighed that profit.
Former ministry leaders Mike and Pam Rozell pulled in nearly $160,000 per year according to tax documents from 2014 to 2016. Mike Rozell declined to comment for this story and directed questions to Potter’s Field counsel DiMuro.
It’s unclear when the wage claims could be settled. Potter’s Field is selling off properties and assets with some of the proceeds earmarked for any wage claims it’s liable for and to settle potential lawsuits.
Wage claimants say the ultimate goal is to hold the ministry accountable for its actions. Strong says many stayed for years because they were promised all-expenses paid mission trips, a cause Strong says he was dedicated to.
"I just thought that would be a vessel to get me back to doing that again, was going back to Potter’s Field. That never happened for me."
Instead, Strong and others spent their time working in a burger restaurant.
Updated 12/3/19: This story has been updated to reflect additional wage claims MTPR received from the Montana Department of Industry and Labor.