Ceder said she concluded that the company not only failed to maintain any sort of policy regarding expenses but also seemed to systematically shortchange workers, from declining to pay simple business expenses to withholding commission payments for months on end or never making the payments at all. Salespeople often earn a percentage of each ad contract in the form of commission as an incentive to sell, which Marcoa portrayed as a significant part of its compensation package.
"My entire point for pursuing a claim for myself was not to receive my expense reimbursement back, although it's always nice to get the money you put out," Ceder said. "My aim was twofold: One, to have the state investigate and prosecute Marcoa, so that the result of that investigation and prosecution would be an across-the-board change in Marcoa's current noncompetitive business practices. And second, to get the Marcoa story out into the public."
Former Marcoa workers we interviewed appeared to corroborate Ceder's claims.
Mario Sarafraz worked as a salesman at Marcoa for 13 months, but he's worked elsewhere in sales for 17 years. He said he only "tolerated" Marcoa for so long because he liked working closely with the hotel and restaurant industries for the company's semiannual Business Meetings and More publication.
"Everything else was a nightmare from the beginning," he said. Sarafraz claimed he never received a single commission check, and added that even in a profession where workers move on quickly, Marcoa "had an extremely high turnover rate."
Virtually everyone we talked to said the sales staff had to share two old computers and the company didn't allow them access to the database of businesses that had purchased ads. Repeated phone calls to businesses that had already grown disenchanted with Marcoa were common, they complained.
A former office manager who asked not to be identified said she believed the Chamber was largely kept in the dark about annoyed advertisers waiting for sometimes long-delayed publication dates and embittered former Marcoa employees.
Carol Piasente, the Chamber's vice president of communications, said the group had no comment and that the issue was a "personnel matter between Marcoa and their employees." Steve Falk, the Chamber's CEO and a former publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote in an e-mail that he "had not heard any complaints about Marcoa" but failed to respond to follow-up questions. No one at the Chamber would confirm whether the group received annual fees from Marcoa for revenue generated from ads placed in Chamber publications.
"It was by far the most shady company I've ever worked for," one saleswoman, who also requested anonymity, said. "They turn and burn employees like you would not believe."
Although she too became a top seller for the company, she said she never received commission and never saw her last paycheck.
Dean Fryer, a spokesperson for the DIR's Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, told us that agency officials pursue an investigation based on the case's merit.
"On all cases that involve wages due employees, we'll move forward to collect those wages," he said. "Our primary goal is to collect money due employees."