Workers allege "slave labor" at popular holiday display

By Lindsey Connell - bio | email | Twitter

PINE MOUNTAIN, GA (WTVM) -  Current and former employees are speaking out about Callaway Gardens' popular holiday lights show, claiming there's a darker side to the sparkling display.

Every year, around 150,000 people flock to the festive attraction in Harris County, called "Fantasy in Lights."

Tauna Pierce is the former Wildlife curator at Callaway Gardens. After six years, Pierce resigned from her position in November, tired of what she says are unethical and illegal business practices.

"I feel quite simply that Callaway Gardens has been exploiting their workers. They've been mandating that workers fulfill an 80 hour obligation to a volunteer effort. In my opinion, a volunteer effort is not mandated," she told News Leader 9.

In 2009 and 2010, all salaried Callaway employees were required to take two weeks furlough and put in 80 hours at the five main events the attraction site boasts every year- the biggest, it's "Fantasy in Lights" show.

"It's the Callaway Gardens' slave labor program. What else do you call it when someone forces you to go to a place and provide them profit with your efforts and then not get paid in return? That's indentured servitude maybe if not slave labor."

A current employee who wanted to remain anonymous said this:"It is my hope as a current employee that Callaway's management team isn't taken advantage of as they have been in the past. It's difficult to bring this kind of situation to light because Callaway has created such a culture of fear. It's unfair to take advantage of people, many of whom have very passionate beliefs in Callaway's mission, not in a bottom line."

Edward Callaway, Chairman and CEO of the Callaway Foundation says the measures were taken to help reduce costs during the economic downturn. He says there has always been an open line of communication between employees.

He released this statement to WTVM:"It is lawful, ethical and appropriate. I'm very proud of the way the Callaway Gardens team has pulled together in the last few years to help this institution continue with its mission in the appropriate way."

Pierce says she wants employees to be compensated. She along with other current and former employees are contacting the Department of Labor and seeking restitution.

"The Fair Labor Standards Act negates that there are rules that employers have to adhere to to make sure your employees are compensated for the work they give you. That's what I want to happen with this. I would really like Callaway Gardens to be accountable for every hour of labor they've received from these hardworking people. Pay them for the work that they've given. That's it," she said.

Before this story aired, WTVM received several calls from different managers at Callaway Gardens, refuting Pierce's claims.

Engineering manager Travis Breedlove says he enjoys the volunteer work because he gets to interact with guests and other team members and knows it's necessary for Callaway's success.

Director of Landscape Tim Banks has worked at Callaway Gardens for 15 years. He says Callaway cares about its staff members and their families, calling the institution family-oriented and adding it's a place he loves to work for.

In 2011, Callaway employees are being asked to take one week furlough and put in 40 hours of volunteer time at events.

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