I was terrorized out of my job by Small Press Distribution.
Since the publication of this article, more Small Press Distribution staff members have come forward with accounts of wage theft, abuse & misconduct. Their testimonies and several responses from the public are linked at the end of this article. A thorough timeline of events can be found here.
My two years at Small Press Distribution were defined by a pattern of financial abuse, gaslighting, hostility, exploitation, and retaliation from directors and management.
SPD underpaid me by over $4,000 in 2019. For six months of the year, they paid me less than minimum wage. SPD only made this fully known to me by January 2020. I was forced out of my job by the end of February.
The Executive Director, with the approval of the board, then sent me a $2,500 “severance offer” in exchange for my complete confidentiality and a promise not to prosecute. The contract would have barred me from saying “disparaging” comments about SPD or its employees, giving SPD the right to collect $500 in liquidated damages from me for each comment.
I did not sign it.
Read the full agreement here.
SPD has a history of exploiting staff labor and fomenting a retaliatory and hostile work environment in response to their wage violations and worker abuse. My severance agreement was only an escalation of that existing pattern and a final threat of the power they would continue to hold over me outside of the workplace.
The board of SPD is run by powerful people working in poetry and the publishing industry. Board members include prominent poets from my undergraduate university and my current graduate program. They own businesses that I have visited since I was a teenager. They are people with status; they are the people you don’t want to upset.
They have given me every reason to believe that they are willing to retaliate again.
It has been nine months since I last set foot in SPD. I am still unemployed. I am still unraveling. I am still afraid of hitting send.
The abuse at SPD was so pervasive and ongoing that it would be impossible for me to fully convey its extent in this one post alone. Specific instances of SPD’s abusive behavior are highlighted here, but there are countless other incidences and ongoing patterns of behavior that perpetuated and entrenched a consistently hostile work environment.
I plan to talk more openly about the abuse I experienced, the process of grieving following their retaliation, and the long-term impacts that this has had on my health.
But for now, this much should be stated.
I present the following overview with urgency, at a time when workers are more vulnerable to the whims and demands of their employers than ever before, and as arts organizations siphon support from the public while privately abusing their staff — as low-wage workers face down the barrel of the pandemic every day for bosses that they now know, without question, do not care whether they live or die.
This is for the workers. This is for our lives.
Employees were not given pay stubs. We received all wages via direct deposit. In September 2019, SPD first revealed that I had been underpaid by over $2,000 and had been paid less than minimum wage for months. I was never given complete, legal pay stubs showing my hourly rate and hours worked. When I asked the Finance Director for copies of my 2019 pay stubs in 2020, I was questioned and pressured to accept a list of deposits made to my account. When I asked again for actual paystubs, I was sent incomplete pay stubs that did not show my hours worked or rate of pay.
Only after I continued to insist that I receive pay stubs did the Finance Director disclose that I had been underpaid by over $2,000 for a second time.
I was still never given legal pay stubs.
After this was brought to my attention, the Executive Director, Brent Cunningham, transferred money into my bank account on my day off, ignoring my response to his emails where I stated that I did not want him to do so. When I came back to the office, I was pressured to accept what SPD claimed to be “back pay,” cut across several checks, without being given clear supporting documentation or legal pay stubs. One of those checks contained $1,000 that the Executive Director said was for “hardship.” This money was bundled into a check containing other “back pay” amounts, making it impossible for me to deposit one without the other.
Given the egregiousness of their repeat pay issues, I had a firm suspicion that SPD was underpaying other workers. It was only after I persistently asked that all staff be informed of what happened to me that SPD held a meeting and admitted openly that they had not been using legal pay structures. Staff began to realize we had all been given illegal pay stubs and had serious concerns about the company’s pay and labor policies.
Despite repeated attempts from management to isolate me from the rest of the staff — and consistent, firm resistance to looking further into their wage violations — it finally came to light that SPD had underpaid most of their hourly staff.
I was not the only one.
When the extent of their violations became known, SPD management retaliated against me by creating an increasingly hostile work environment until I was pushed out of my job of almost two years. Put another way by a coworker, I was “terrorize[d] out of a job” by SPD.
Because there was no reliable way that SPD tracked our hours worked, I spent dozens of hours on my own going through all of my communication with SPD management to compile my pay and work history and compare it with what little SPD had given me. I received help from legal aid clinics throughout the final month of my employment, constituting dozens of additional hours. In the end, it was determined that SPD could be liable for over 200 penalties based on unlawfully withheld wages and record-keeping violations alone.
The expectation that I perform labor for little to no money was embedded into my time at SPD from the moment that I started as an unpaid intern. SPD blurred the line between volunteering, or in my case “warehouse interning,” and paid work. A few months into interning, I was given a paid position in the warehouse, where I did the same tasks that I had done as an intern.
My role in the warehouse was primarily that of manual labor. I was required to move boxes of 20–30 pounds or more and lift stacks of books to and from high shelves using step ladders for the duration of my shift. The rigorous labor quickly made my existing physical disability unbearable, and I brought this to the attention of SPD management right away. My managers assured me that they would find a way to reduce the strenuousness of my warehouse role. They never did. For months, I patiently reminded them of my worsening physical condition. Despite knowing that I was in serious physical pain, every manager juxtaposed my needs against the needs of the organization. I was told by management that I would likely lose hours if I was not able to keep up with what was being asked of me in the warehouse. Fearing retaliation and loss of income, I continued to work until the pain became so severe that I needed to start physical therapy. At the end of 2018, I approached the directors again to finally tell them that I couldn’t continue my role in the warehouse. I was forced to reach a physical and emotional breaking point for them to take my condition — my physical pain — seriously.
I apologized profusely. I was afraid of losing my income. I felt guilty that I was burdening them.
From late 2018 to early 2019, I was slowly moved from the warehouse to work in the front office. By then, it had been made clear to me that management and the organization expected that my boundaries and rights remain flexible and conditional in order to secure my employment.
The Executive Director used his status as a person in a position of power to pressure and exploit me into giving him free, personal labor, both within and outside of the workplace. After I started working in the front office, he would regularly approach my desk first thing in the morning, always unannounced, to have me listen to his most recent, very personal issues, which a coworker accurately referred to as him “unloading” on me. I usually worked simultaneously while listening, rarely interjecting. This could be heard by the entire office. I was humiliated by how transparently his power over me was flaunted in front of other staff members.
Other coworkers who witnessed this regular behavior from him confirmed that it was inappropriate and manipulative.
Once, after coming over to my desk in tears about his daughter, Brent began talking at me about older television shows he had started watching. In one show, the phrase “don’t Jew me” was used. He said that he never realized how bad that phrase sounded and that he had used it himself before. He left my desk without saying anything else. For the record, I am Jewish. In closed-door meetings, it was not uncommon for Brent to further unload on me about his personal life, even if the purpose of the meeting was to discuss serious workplace issues. At the end of one of these meetings, where I had again been forced to be his captive audience, Brent told me, with the cadence of a joke, that he would have to stop expecting emotional labor from people of color in the office. For the record, I am Latinx.
He made similar comments throughout my employment. They always sounded like canned responses and empty virtue signaling to the larger problems with him personally and the company broadly.
In 2019, I house sat for Brent Cunningham more than once while he was on vacation. After remarking that I had cleaned up well the first time that I watched his house, he suggested that I clean again the next time he went on vacation, even though I never offered to do so. I cleaned his house. He paid me for watching his house but not for cleaning it. The next time I was scheduled to house sit, while I was in the middle of the work shift, Brent approached my desk and directly asked me to clean his house. I was humiliated by the request, so much that I didn’t even tell my partner about what was asked of me until months later. Yet I still cleaned Brent’s house and felt obligated to do so, because Brent held the highest position in the office.
When Brent would come back from vacation, he would usually not pay me until I reminded him.
He never paid me extra for house cleaning.
Even after it was known that SPD had a pattern of underpaying me, the Executive Director treated my pay as insignificant, if not personally burdensome, both in private and in front of other staff members.
In January, after informing him that he had failed to let the Finance Director know about my extra holiday hours and that I would therefore be paid late, he said, “maybe it would be like last time, where we save a lump for you and then it’s like a surprise,” referring to the last time they had underpaid me by over $2,000 in September. He said it like it was a joke, or that I should laugh, and when I didn’t, I realized just how conditioned I was to have to laugh along at my own expense.
After the extent of SPD’s pay violations became known to the entire staff, and after I began to speak candidly about the laws that were being repeatedly broken by SPD, the Executive Director’s behavior became overtly aggressive. He became more unpredictable and hostile the more that I asserted personal boundaries at work. His responses oscillated from accusing me of creating an “us vs. them” dynamic in the office after I informed my coworkers of their rights to legal pay stubs, to regularly calling me “Dear [my name],” touching me on the shoulder or arm to get my attention from behind while I was working at my desk.
When asked questions about my pay, he accused me of questioning “his” math. He would condescendingly refer to my “rightful anger” and “hurt,” framing my objective questions as emotional reactions. I was routinely asked to come into one-on-one meetings and questioned about why I had not deposited checks, which Brent euphemistically referred to as “healing.” My only response was that it was taking me a lot of time to look into it — which was the truth, given the severity of their wage violations.
When a visiting poet stopped by the office, Brent disclosed to her that there were issues with me that required a mediator and brought her to my desk to talk to me — none of this was done with my consent or knowledge.
Once, as if in an attempt to shock me, he approached my desk to ask me how my cocaine habit was going, seemingly in reference to the multiple checks he had handed me just days before. In another instance of hostility, he responded to a question I raised in an all-staff email thread about an upcoming meeting by sending me an unsolicited, direct email after 11 pm, insinuating, in a transparently accusatory tone, that there must be something else I was “getting at” or “looking for.”
At one point near the end of my employment, I told him and the Managing Director that I was no longer comfortable meeting with him in private.
When I found out that I had been underpaid for a second time, I expressed to management my need for clear boundaries at work. In response, my manager, Jane Gregory, accused me of harming our friendship. Even though I repeatedly communicated to her that there was nothing personal behind me having boundaries between work and my personal life, she would either relentlessly attempt to coerce me into divulging information about my plans for SPD or outright tell me that I should not be interacting with my coworkers: that I shouldn’t trust them, and that she had done more for me than anyone else.
She told me during work hours that I was treating her unfairly, putting me in positions of having to console her. She said that I should move my desk if I didn’t want to be friends anymore (which I never, in any way, said that I wanted). It was a barrage of passive aggression — gaslighting me about the severity of SPD’s violations on one hand and spreading misinformation about my legal rights on the other. She not only firmly told me that I should not tell my coworkers about how much money I made, but incorrectly told me that I could not collect penalties on pay stub violations. I spent countless hours outside of work digging through my labor rights, only to come into the workplace to find management pushing my boundaries in new ways.
The last time I stepped foot into SPD was on February 24th, 2020.
On February 27th, I blocked all SPD managers from my social media, including my manager. Since then, she has texted me four times, most recently in September. I have never responded to her messages.
Management’s retaliation, towards staff generally and towards me specifically, was always visible and recognized by my coworkers, friends, and family. After being forced out of my job in an increasingly hostile workplace, I have been left with lasting trauma.
I know very well how SPD retaliates within their circles against those who question them. I know that SPD intended to intimidate and bully me into silence, as they always had, and that the final demand for my silence in their “severance agreement,” coupled with clauses demanding that I pay them for every negative utterance I spoke of them for the rest of my life, showed that they’d gag me, push my face into the mud if it meant shutting me up, even though they already have their foot on my back. I know that they are not above threatening those with the least amount of power — and in my case, those who they’ve already broken with their abuse.
I come forward afraid but I will not be quiet any longer.
If I sound like I am trying to convince you of what has happened, it is because of the learned fear in my chest and deep in my gut that no one would care, because caring would mean recognizing that a pattern of abuse — not a series of mistakes, not disorganized, unintentional negligence — is foundational to an organization that is idealized in the literary community.
I hope that this brief and incomplete account of what was done to me will open up urgent examinations into how the erosion of workers’ boundaries and rights is normalized, not just by SPD, but also by literary organizations and the publishing industry at large.
This should never happen again. We can all make sure that it doesn’t.
The following directors and managers played an active role in the anti-worker hostility and abuse at SPD:
Brent Cunningham, Executive Director
Andrew Pai, Finance Director
Jane Gregory, Managing Director
Trisha Low, Publicity Manager
The SPD board, which approved the “severance agreement” delivered to me by Brent Cunningham, includes the following people:
Alan Bernheimer (Board President), Communications Executive, Ret.
Cecil S. Giscombe (Board Vice President), University of California, Berkeley / Mixed Blood Journal
Jonathan Fernandez (Board Treasurer), Rasputin Records / Blondies Pizza / Bear Basics
Laura Moriarty (Board Secretary)
Juliana Spahr, Mills College / A’A Arts Press
David Rothenberg, Nolo Press, Mother Jones, Morgan Kaufmann, Mix Magazine
Rena Rosenwasser, Kelsey Street Press
Michael Morgan, Morgan & Claypool Publishers
Ethan Nosowsky, Graywolf Press
Roberto Bedoya, Cultural Affairs Manager, City of Oakland
Tonya Foster, California College of the Arts, The African American Review, Fence Magazine
Lorraine Lupo, Poet/Publisher
Jerrold Shiroma, UC Merced Library / duration press
Since the publication of this article, many of the above Small Press Distribution board members have left, with no public acknowledgment of their departures from them or SPD, including Cecil S. Giscombe, Laura Moriarty, Juliana Spahr, Tonya Foster, Jonathan Fernandez, and Jerrold Shiroma. Brent Cunningham and Trisha Low are no longer at SPD. Jane Gregory departed for several months but has been reinstated as of July 1st. Her reinstatement has been condemned by current and former SPD staff.
Statement from SPD Staff: “written to affirm the narrative of Damaged Book Worker” & then-current staff members’ experiences of “chronic misconduct.” [12/18/20]
“Toxic: A Farewell to SPD & Hostile Workplaces” by J Worthen, former SPD employee of over seven years [2/15/21]
Testimony from a Former SPD Warehouse Worker: “The culture of worker abuse in the literary/ nonprofit industry must end.” [2/16/21]
Testimony from a Current SPD Worker & Sole Remaining Non-Management Woman Worker: “Things couldn’t be worse at SPD right now.” [6/3/21]
“A Call to End the Anti-Worker Campaign Led By SPD’s Board, Directors, Managers, and Apologists,” from seven current & former SPD staff who “experienced or witnessed intimidation, gaslighting, hostility, emotional abuse, wage theft, illegal pay structures, exploitation, and other abuses while employed at SPD.” [6/10/21]
“Current & Former SPD Staff Responds To Management-Led Efforts To Falsely Exonerate SPD Leadership,” offering evidence that refutes recent public statements from SPD that painted “a picture of SPD that is contrary to the realities brought to the public’s attention by victims.” [7/13/21]
“How Former Employees at a Berkeley Bastion for Literary Presses Ignited a Reckoning,” KQED News. Testimonies from multiple former staff members, including an audio piece about another former worker who was asked to sign an NDA by SPD. [8/10/21]
Articles & Public Responses:
Open Letter to Small Press Distribution: “In light of SPD management’s labor violations and hostile work environment, including microaggressions against a worker of Color, we are writing with the following demands…” [12/11/20]
KQED Radio Piece [1/3/21]
“Allegations of Wage Theft, Discrimination at Small Press Distribution,” Publishers Weekly [1/6/21]
“Fair Practices and Damaged Book Workers,” Full Stop [1/25/21]
Boycott from Bluestockings Cooperative [5/25/21]