However, when tech stocks took a downturn in the spring, things got a little tense. Kozmo--which has now lost $27.3 million--delayed its plans to go public, and in a move obviously designed to reassure potential investors, the company began transforming itself into a streamlined machine complete with new orange uniforms, new regimented structures, and some draconian new employee policies. Last week, over a quarter of Kozmo's 200 Seattle employees were fired because they refused to sign a form consenting to a broad background check. We talked with 22-year-old Alison Sulham, who managed a team of eight Kozmo couriers, and Thomas Jefferson Read, a 45-year-old floor supervisor, who, in the newly established Kozmo corporate flow chart, managed folks like Sulham. Although both employees were on the promotion fast track, they were fired on June 19 for failing to sign the consent form.
What's the pay for couriers? [Seattle Kozmo employs about 120 drivers and 40 bikers.]
SULHAM: When I started it was eight an hour, with a raise to nine after a month, plus whatever tips. But that changed. They instituted a policy to encourage people to follow all the new rules that came out, so you were given a dollar per delivery if you wore your uniform, showed up on time, and didn't have any late orders. And they dropped the pay down to seven an hour.
When did you first hear about the background check?
SULHAM: June 9. There was an impromptu meeting that afternoon, and they just started discussing this document, and said that we would be asked to sign it--reiterating many, many times that they were just trying to cover their bases. Here's what the agreement said: "I understand a consumer reporting agency will [get]... information regarding my credit background, references, character, past employment, work habits, education, general reputation, personal characteristics... lawsuits, judgments, paid tax liens, unlawful detainer actions, failure to pay spousal or child support, accounts placed for collection, driving record where appropriate, and criminal background consistent with state law."
It seemed very broad and kind of bizarre to me. I'd never been asked anything like that in a job before. There were no limits, no point at which these documents would expire or be destroyed. We pressed for amendments to the documents, and at first they said perhaps--but I assume they discussed things with New York and came back and said no, this is uniform policy; this is the way it is; you have 24 hours to sign or we terminate you.
[The agreement, according to Read--who had worked at Kozmo since June 1999--also forces employees to waive their right to challenge what former employers and Kozmo say about them. Indeed, the agreement reads: "I hereby release, waive and forever discharge each of the above named corporations [including Kozmo], firms, their respective officers, agents, employees and any of my former employers and all actions or cause of action, claim, demand or liability which I have now or may have resulting directly or indirectly from conducting this background investigation...."]
Did they explain why they wanted employees to sign this thing?
READ: The gossip is that they had a problem in L.A. They discovered employees there with criminal histories. So I guess they overreacted to that. They went to this New York company, Sterling Testing, a company that does background checks. The idea came from them.
[For a text of the explanation Kozmo management gave to employees regarding the background check, go to the online version of this article at www.thestranger.com/specials/employeecheck.html ]
How did they answer your objections to the agreement?
SULHAM: I had a verbal reassurance that none of this was going to happen; that they just wanted my signature and wanted the option.
READ: This was a decision that came out of New York. I got the impression that our local folks were fighting it the whole way, but there wasn't much they could do. They tried to just go with the criminal background check, but drop the other stuff. They couldn't get it. Essentially, management in Seattle is busy dealing with the poor decisions that are made by the clowns in New York. They were put in the position of firing me, and so they lost me and two other delivery floor supervisors. I had a history. I'd been promoted four times. I knew what worked and what didn't. They lost that.
And the company says:
Kozmo.com did not return calls from The Stranger.
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