SWANZEY — The N.H. Department of Labor conducted an inspection this week into a new-to-town manufacturing business, where at least two people allege they worked for weeks without pay.
Rudolph “Rudy” Ogden, the department’s deputy commissioner, said an inspector visited BetterBone Inc. Tuesday morning.
BetterBone is a manufacturer of edible dog chews, according to owner Angelo Nastovski. The company began moving into the old Homestead Woolen Mill complex on South Winchester Street in Swanzey over the summer.
“I can say typically what induces us to go out and perform an inspection is complaints,” Ogden said Tuesday afternoon, although he said he couldn’t release information on the nature of any complaints against BetterBone. As a rule, he said, the labor department doesn’t share details of employee-submitted complaints.
But two Swanzey residents, who told The Sentinel they’d worked for BetterBone, said they made complaints to the labor department last week.
Christy Whitcomb said Nastovski hired her as BetterBone’s human resources manager Sept. 24. Her daughter, Lora George, said she accepted a job as the company’s marketing director a few days later.
Both women allege they weren’t paid any money during their time at the company.
As of Wednesday afternoon, three reviews on the company’s Facebook page also accuse the owners of hiring people without paying them.
Attempts to reach Nastovski by phone and email Wednesday were unsuccessful.
When a reporter asked BetterBone Vice President Peter E. Halfkenny Tuesday morning about the labor department’s inspection, he said any further communication from the company would come “through me and in the form of a press release.”
The Sentinel had not received a news release from BetterBone as of this morning when it went to press.
Nastovski has promised to hire more than 224 people in the mill complex. He and Halfkenny have said they will offer a minimum wage of just over $19 an hour with full health and dental benefits, no copays, and a 10-year pension plan.
Hundreds of people attended a job fair in September, at which the business ran out of job applications within an hour. Nastovski has said he’s received more than 3,000 applications.
Nastovski said he founded BetterBone in New York and moved the business here, but as detailed in a report published in October, The Sentinel found no record of BetterBone in the state’s corporate filings. Nastovski has said he has a patent for his manufacturing process, which The Sentinel couldn’t verify, and at least two photos on the company’s website are from other businesses or publications.
When asked about these inconsistencies, Nastovski said his patent is intentionally difficult to find because he doesn’t want other companies to find it and use his process.
He also said some of the photos are from the New York facility he operated in, while others are “generic” and intended to represent what the company does, adding that someone else designed his website.
Nastovski’s record includes a felony conviction related to a fraudulent inspection sticker. He has also filed for personal bankruptcy three times in the past 13 years, though never to completion.
In 2002, a court ordered Nastovski to repay nearly $13,000 for a business loan. When asked by The Sentinel about this, he said he’d expected a larger loan for a start-up. By the time he received the money, he said, the business was already in debt, and he used the loan to repay employees who had been working without compensation.
“We took the (loan money) to pay off the people we hired, because they worked for us just on my word saying, ‘Hey, as soon as we get paid, you’ll get paid,’” Nastovski said. “We were not lying to anybody, not trying to deceive anybody.”
Nastovski said that after paying the employees, he and his then-business partner abandoned the company and the machinery.
Checks never came
Whitcomb said her annual salary was set at $85,000, but that she didn’t sign an employment contract with BetterBone.
George does have an employment agreement, which Whitcomb shared with The Sentinel with George’s permission.
The document shows signatures from Nastovski and George and is dated Sept. 27. It lists her annual compensation as $85,000, to be paid in weekly installments, plus 6 percent commission on sales. Medical, vision and dental would kick in immediately, according to the agreement.
George’s start date, Oct. 8, is also included in the document.
As HR manager, Whitcomb said she was charged with processing new employees. After accepting her job, she said, she learned that there was no equipment in the BetterBone office at the old mill complex, besides an old printer. Whitcomb said she brought her own supplies to perform her job duties, and she scanned and stored people’s employment verification information and tax forms on her personal laptop.
Whitcomb said she expected a one- or two-week delay in her first paycheck, since it was a new job. When she hadn’t gotten paid after two weeks, she said, she met a representative of a payroll company, which she took as a sign that the company was setting up a system to issue wages. After another week or so without payment, Whitcomb said, she began to worry for herself and her daughter.
On Oct. 23, George said she confronted Halfkenny and told him that, if she wasn’t paid, she would have no choice but to report the issue to the state labor department.
Both women said they filed complaints with the state agency the following morning, Oct. 24. They also emailed Nastovski through the company address and said they would not return to work until BetterBone paid the wages owed to them. Whitcomb and George shared those emails with The Sentinel and said they didn’t receive a response.
Promise to jobless
Whitcomb said she worked for five weeks without pay; George said she worked for three. They held on for so long, they said, because they felt it was too late to turn back. Both said they’d quit jobs to work at BetterBone: George had worked part time at The Bread Shed in Keene, and her mother had spent the past several years with the Windham Foundation in Grafton, Vt.
Whitcomb has a temporary part-time gig for the time being, but she’s trying to find a path forward.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do next,” she said. “I was with this company for seven years. I had worked my way up to the quality assurance department. And I left for this, and now I have nothing.”
Given her own experience, Whitcomb said, she tried to lower applicants’ expectations when she met them.
“Finally, when I got people into my office I was telling them, ‘Don’t hold out for this,’ … because I knew it wasn’t going to happen,” she said.
With the promise of employment at BetterBone, George said she and her family sold their home and made an offer on a larger house.
“When this job opportunity from Angelo (Nastovski) came along, we crunched the numbers, and … suddenly, we could afford our dream house,” she said.
But because the mortgage company required proof of income, George said she held out hope for a pay stub.
Now George said she’s scrambling to find a job to secure the loan for the new house, but her family must vacate their current home on Nov. 16, and she’s worried her husband and her 5-year-old daughter won’t have anywhere to go.
“... I did all this work and drank the Kool-Aid,” George said. “Now my family’s going to be homeless.”