Cause: PetSmart’s “free paid training” leaves groomers in debt

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BreAnn Scally started working at PetSmart because she thought it would help her develop the skills she needed to someday open an animal rescue, her childhood dream. Growing up, she spent her days walking around with her grandmother’s dogs, sometimes dragging the blanket into their kennel to snuggle up.

Scally, 24, landed a job in February 2021 as a “bather” at a PetSmart in Salinas, California, hoping to qualify for the “Grooming Academy”. The PetSmart website advertises “free paid training” as part of a “career that lights up”, with 800 hours of hands-on, supervised training “worth up to $ 6,000!”

She only realized months later, she says, that the documents she had signed to start the Grooming Academy and receive grooming tools had locked her into an agreement to stay with the company for two years, or refund the full cost. of “free” training.

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Now Scally has sued the country’s largest pet retailer, in a complaint that PetSmart traps would-be groomers in an unfair deal that allows the company to profit from training and uses debt to discourage workers from leave work.

“The financial goals that I had, that I was so close to, have gotten further and further out of my reach for it,” Scally said.

PetSmart said it does not comment on pending disputes, but “is committed to supporting the professional development of our members.”

“Other training programs in the industry can cost more than $ 10,000,” the company said in a statement. “We are proud that PetSmart’s on-the-job training program offers a rewarding career path without the direct costs associated with other training programs.”

The complaint alleges that instead of the free training and grooming tools promised, PetSmart keeps workers hooked for $ 5,000 – or $ 5,500 if they accept a grooming toolkit – if they’re fired or quit before two years.

Debt is reduced to $ 2,500 (or $ 2,750 with the grooming toolkit) if the employee leaves more than a year after the first anniversary of the Grooming Academy start.

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This practice violates a fundamental principle of labor and labor law that the employer pays for the cost of the business, according to Rachel Dempsey of Towards Justice, a nonprofit organization representing workers in litigation, who is one of Scally’s attorneys. With Grooming Academy, PetSmart is effectively charging its workers for training while making money from the grooming jobs they complete in the process, says Dempsey.

Under California law, there is no regulatory requirement for grooming certification. In the absence of such a requirement, the law states that employers are responsible for the cost of the required training that is incurred for the benefit of the employer, the complaint says.

“No matter how you characterize the training … PetSmart is doing something illegal,” Dempsey said. “You can’t make employees pay for their training or pay to work for you.”

David Seligman, executive director of Towards Justice and another Scally attorney, said that, in general, restrictive agreements such as what PetSmart requires for its groomers allow employers to pay workers less and provide fewer benefits, “because they don’t have to worry about one of the main ways employees exercise their power, which is to quit and find a better job. “

Many PetSmart groomers earn just above the minimum wage, the complaint notes. Scally was making $ 15 an hour.

“For these workers, $ 5,500 could be more than two months’ pay. As a result, leaving your job in search of higher wages could lead to difficulties in paying rent or putting food on the table, “the complaint says.

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Michael Rubin, a labor attorney at Altshuler Berzon in San Francisco, argues that debt “can be used to ensure a more compliant workforce” and “much more fearful” to speak out.

“The fact that someone has attended PetSmart Grooming Academy will not increase that person’s ability to get another field job,” Rubin said. “It really maximizes their chances of staying with PetSmart long enough to pay off the debt.”

PetSmart has already faced criticism of conditions in its salons: A 2018 survey by NJ Advance Media found that at least 32 dogs had died “during or within days” of grooming at PetSmart since 2015, when the company was bought by the company. of private equity BC Partner.

PetSmart said in a statement that its academy-trained groomers receive more than 800 hours of instruction, “significantly more than any state licensing program.”

“We love and care for the pets in our care as if they were our own,” the statement said. “We run more than 13 million grooming appointments a year and will never falter on our industry-leading standards that millions of pet parents entrust to us.”

Former employees told NJ Advance Media that the company’s grooming training “may not live up to what’s being advertised.” Workers said they “saw unprepared trainees rushing to stores due to staff shortages” and that “many felt ignored or reacted when they talked about safety or wrongdoing by colleagues,” according to the survey. .

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Jenna Wait, PetSmart’s California quality and education leader, has been with the company since 2008. She started as a bather and worked her way through the Grooming Academy before serving as a district instructor for eight years.

“Grooming is a skill and it takes time to master it,” Wait said. “There’s a lot more to it than people think.”

The Grooming Academy takes four weeks, Wait said, three of which are spent working alongside a district trainer so that trainees can gain close supervision as they learn about coats, products and breed standards, moving from simple shaves to techniques. of hand cut scissors for poodles.

“One of our strongest characteristics is the amount of time we spend working directly with our groomers,” Wait said.

But Scally said the reality he found it was very different: after a week of training on the workbook, she said, she was dropped into the deepest part of salon styling.

The salon manager responsible for Scally’s individual training was also supervising several other groomers and bathers, while maintaining her own bridal schedule. She scally said she learned from watching other groomers and working alone with training exercises, when she didn’t answer the phone, she checked clients, made appointments, and kept the salon clean. Sometimes she and the other workers were so busy they went through an entire shift without a break or a meal, according to the complaint.

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Scally loved working with dogs despite the difficult environment, but after Seven months of struggling to survive, she was forced to accept that she could not support herself (and her three cats and dogs) while working at PetSmart.

“I was basically just making dollars every week to get my next check and get a couple of gallons of gas to get home,” Scally said.

It was only when Scally tried to leave that she realized that her “free paid training” had left her with a $ 5,500 debt to PetSmart. Scally said when she approached her manager of hers, she it was said that PetSmart would hardly try to raise if she was able to sell enough products and groom enough dogs to make the money back before quitting. So he said he kept track of the income he brought in and didn’t give up until September 2021, when he thought he had earned enough.

But in January, a collection notice for $ 5,500 appeared on Scally’s credit report. She said the debt has dented enormously her credit score, preventing her from signing a lease on an apartment with her partner. She put off her plans for her to go back to vet school because she didn’t want to take out more loans with a lower credit score.

Scally now works as an animal care technician, carrying out cage changes and laboratory rodent health observations. It was the best job he could find that still allowed her to work with animals.

“For me to have this financial burden of returning $ 5,500, it’s daunting because I could have done something else,” Scally said. “I could have paid an online grooming academy $ 500 probably more than what I got for what PetSmart charged me.”

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