Business ethics 101

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce's publishing company is accused of shorting employees
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gwschulz@sfbg.com

Marcoa Publishing seems to be at the top of its game. The San Diegobased company bills itself as the "nation's largest publisher of advertising-supported, local business publications."

It rarely misses an opportunity to remind prospective advertising clients and employees alike about its exclusive contract to print industry-specific guides and an annual membership directory for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, of which it is also a member and business partner.

In fact, Marcoa's San Francisco offices are located just four floors below the Chamber in the heart of the Financial District, at 235 Montgomery St. But what the oldest Chamber of Commerce in the western United States may not have known is that its "exclusive publisher" is being investigated by the California Department of Industrial Relations (DIR) for possible violations of the state's labor code.

And now the question is: Does the business community's biggest booster have a blind spot for dubious ethics?

Paula Ceder went to work as an ad sales specialist for Marcoa's SF office from her home in November 2004. But despite the fact that she quickly became the San Francisco office's top seller, she realized that Marcoa had no interest in reimbursing her for business expenses. High-end salespeople regularly spend thousands of dollars a year making personal contact with their clients money that employers generally reimburse.

It's perfectly common, and in fact legally required, for employers to reimburse workers for such expenses. And Marcoa has even promoted the claim that it offers expense reimbursements in its job postings on Monster.com.

But by the time Ceder left Marcoa, in August 2005 having worked much longer than many former Marcoa employees she told the Guardian she had accrued $2,500 in reimbursable business expenses. Over that nine-month period, she didn't meet another employee who'd received reimbursed expenses, meaning former Marcoa employees could still be awaiting thousands of dollars in compensation. Marcoa did, however, claim to offer a taxable $10 "parking bonus" for each ad contract that the sales specialists managed to sell. But even then it took her four months to get the "bonus," Ceder said. Some ad buyers can commit as much as $12,000 to a two-page spread.

"As soon as I went to work for Marcoa, it became clear that there was no program for expense reimbursement, and I was aware that that was against the law," Ceder said recently. "That was entirely different than any experience I had ever had. Had I known I was going to have that experience, I would have never gone to work for them."

Section 2802 of the state's labor code reads: "An employer shall indemnify his or her employee for all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties, or of his or her obedience to the directions of the employer."

Believing she'd never see the money, she approached the California Labor Commission, which ruled in her favor and granted her $1,693 of the expenses in January. At the hearing, Marcoa CEO Stewart Robertson told the administrative judge he would produce the company's policy regarding expenses. He never did.

During her tenure, Ceder had managed to squeeze a substantial raise out of Marcoa, due mostly, she said, to her top performance. But she said others weren't so lucky.

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