American Income Life / "bait and switch" job offers by a. i. l.
American Income Life (AIL) falsely advertises a salary position, and then pays by commission only. Before hiring, the job requires several weeks of unpaid training for an insurance agent license at the job seeker's own expense. Once hired, the job seeker can expect to undergo further training without pay, to perform some unpaid office work, and to be required to demonstrate adequate knowledge of the job, all before being allowed to go out to earn money, through sales of possibly questionable life insurance products. Union benefits are not available until one has earned a certain amount in sales, and there is no entitlement to union representation until one has earned commission pay from which dues can be drawn.
Relying on a Kijiji ad by AIL promising a salary position, and later an AIL recruiter's express assurance that pay would NOT be commission only, an economically vulnerable woman passed up other job opportunities, used the remainder of her time on Employment Insurance, spent weeks and about $1, 000 for training and expenses, all in preparation for this position, only then to be presented with the following documents to sign:
Agent Contract, stating under "Commissions":
"...Recognizing that the Agent's profit or loss is solely dependent upon Agent's degree of skill and effort, these commissions are to be in full satisfaction of all claims upon the Company account of services or expenses under this contract..."
Special Notice Acknowledgement, stating:
"5. I will be paid on a commission basis only and I will receive a Form T4A for the commissions that I am paid."
Had this woman, a close friend of mine, known at first that the position paid commission only, she would not have been interested in the job, as she needed guaranteed income. She nonetheless signed the contract under duress, because she had invested so much in preparing for the position. When she objected, it was implied to her that she had been rather silly to expect a salary position. Despite AIL's vicarious liability for the recruiter's promises, and even while admitting to my friend that she had been misled by him, his successor said that there was nothing that AIL could do.
Yet, when my friend recently saw another Kijiji ad in relation to the same office, again promising a salary position, with no mention of pay by commission only, she reapplied and was told in writing that this was the same position for which she had already been hired. This showed her that it was not just one recruiter doing the misleading, but rather that AIL was (and is) continuing to use websites such as Kijiji for false advertising. My own online research, as well as my minimally successful attempt to correspond with AIL, confirms that this is a general practice by the whole company.
Given these circumstances of employment under false pretences, my friend thought it would be fair to ask AIL to honor those of its promises that were not inconsistent with the contract she had signed. More specifically, because my friend had originally been promised a salary of $961 per week for both company training and field work, she asked whether she might at least be paid that amount just for the company training alone (merely two weeks), as the contract said nothing one way or the other about training. Instead, she was told that her training pay would only be $550 per week, although this was not at first put in writing, per the Requirement of Writing in the contract.
With this understanding, my friend attended for a day of company training, which began with the instruction to forget everything she had learned during her licensing training. She was told that, rather than focus on helping clients as a Union Benefits Advisor (the ad's job title), her main concern would be selling life insurance. Moreover, she was only to offer whole life insurance, not term insurance, although the latter is often all that low-income parents can afford in order to get adequate protection for their families. At one point during the training, my friend made a casual comment about a husband and wife often wanting to make financial decisions together, and was abruptly told by the young male trainer that no, the man usually wears the pants, and the woman follows his lead. This remark was consistent with what my friend felt was a somewhat sexist work environment, where she found herself being instructed in a condescending tone by young men half her age, lacking her years of experience working in customer relations.
After having travelled from two hours away to sit through this kind of instruction, my friend was then informed that this had only been unpaid "pre-training." She was also told that she would have at least one more day of the same, and would have to demonstrate adequate knowledge of the job before she would be "released" into the field. There was some suggestion, as well, that she would have to do phone work first. It was not clear that she would be paid for any of this office work, nor even for any of the field work unless she made a sale.
In other words, just as the promised salary of $961/week was later reinterpreted as projected commission pay, there was nothing in the commission-only contract, with its Requirement of Writing, to stop AIL from later reinterpreting the promised training pay of $550/week the same way. For this reason, my friend tried to get the terms around training put in writing. All she got in response was an email saying:
"During your training period you are entitled to a weekly compensation of $550. In order to qualify for this you must be present in the field for no less than 4 days per week. Please note that this only pertains to field training and is for a duration of 1-2 weeks."
Since this hardly addressed the above concerns, my friend wrote back with the following questions:
1. By "field, " do you mean out of the office, meeting with potential clients?
2. How much (pre)training, phoning, etc. will I have to do before entering the field?
3. Am I not getting paid for the in-office or non-field work?
4. Does "no less than 4 days per week" mean possibly more than 4 days?
5. Can you be more specific as to how many days per week and hours per day?
6. Will compensation depend on any goals - e.G., tests, appointments, sales?
My friend's email with these questions was at first blocked by AIL. When it later went through, the questions remained unanswered. My friend declined a request for a phone call, and insisted on addressing the issues by email, on the basis that anything unwritten would not be legally binding, given the contract's Requirement of Writing. Following this, AIL ended email correspondence with my friend, and refused to put any other terms around training in writing. To my friend, the implication seemed to be obvious that AIL had expected to get several days of free work/training out of her, and would not pay her unless and until she earned her first commission in the "field" - and there would have been no contractual terms to say otherwise.
Regarding AIL's hype about its union affiliation, a couple of points need to be made. First, there is no entitlement to union benefits until one has earned a certain amount in sales, so that if one works hard without making sales, one is out both pay and union benefits. Second, entitlement to union representation is dependent on payment of dues, which come only from commission pay, so that if there is unfairness which prevents one from getting to the point of earning money and paying dues, such as in the case of my friend, there is no automatic entitlement to union help in dealing with that unfairness. My friend has had to rely on the union's gratuitous offer of help, and so far this help has been slow in coming.
Vaughn Barnett, J.D.
Freelance Researcher & Legally Trained Activist
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