Strife at IC Entertainment

by Jonathan Mays, Oct 6th 2003
The future of I.C. Entertainment is in question following a mass staff resignation. Several former IC Ent employees who left during the resignation claim they were not paid from June 16 to July 31 and that they still have not received full backpay as of October 4th. ANN has attempted to reach I.C. Entertainment for over three weeks, but multiple phone calls were not returned. Three of these former IC Ent employees agreed to be interviewed by ANN:

To begin, could each of you state your name, position, and how long you've been working for I.C. Entertainment?

Duane Johnson, translator (shipper for a short time), worked there for two years. I was unpaid the first several months, but I count it as officially worked time.

Stephanie Brown, editor, volunteered from November 1997 until Spring internship in senior semester of college in 2000, then hired on as Editor in June 2000. So I worked almost three years volunteering before three years of actually getting paid.

Ellen Ohlmacher, graphics editor, worked at IC for slightly over a year. I also was a volunteer for three months (of the one year I was there).

What happened between you and IC Ent?

Stephanie: Well, there were several factors leading up to the mass exodus of staff. For one thing, it was a general practice of the Bennetts to expect anyone interested in working at IC to work for free for a while. And it was like pulling teeth to even get paid.

Duane: IC has always been a very small, very low profit margin company. Pretty much everyone had to do that—some longer than others.

Stephanie: So you come on board as FREE staff, and there's no set time for how long you're expected to work like that. You're just expected to come in as long as you possibly can and accept it. And once you get it settled about getting paid, it was ALWAYS delayed. I was supposed to be on the payroll when I graduated college at the beginning of May 2001. I didn't receive my first paycheck until the end of June that year, even though I was coming in every day for six hours of work each time.

I was told by both Steve and his father (now deceased) that I would be on a trial basis at a starting $6.00 with a raise in a few months. Steve's dad passed away, and I never got that raise. Steve snapped at me for even asking. And I was still expected to pull all-nighters and work at conventions for free at the table and all sorts of stuff. I put up with it because I really wanted to do the work I was doing: putting together comic books and graphic novels.

Fast-forward to present time after years of low pay and living paycheck to paycheck. Kei Blue did manage to get me a $.25 raise soon after she came on board, but that's all she could get out of Steve. And come April 2003, several employee paychecks bounce. Kei takes care of the problem, and new checks are written. In June 2003, Steve puts a freeze on all paychecks. That first pay period ended with a con, Anime Mid-Atlantic. At that con, we (Kei, Jason, Duane, Ellen and myself) told Kevin that we would quit if they didn't pay us. None of us could afford not to receive that crap pay. It barely covered our living expenses, so NOT getting it would be a very BIG problem.

After AMA, we got our paychecks, with much grumbling from Steve. He acted like he didn't want to give us any money and that some of us didn't deserve to be paid. After that point he was always suspicious of Kei and Jason working from home. After THAT paycheck, another pay freeze was enacted. But the promise of several payments from distributors owed to the company was dangled like a carrot, and we stayed on, waiting for the money to come in so we could be paid. We continued to work, but on July 15th, I broke down and told Steve on AIM that I would quit at the end of the month if I didn't get paid. (I considered this my two weeks' notice, which both Bennetts claim no one did. I have a log of it, so I have proof I was going to quit on July 31st.) He talked me down, promising to catch up on paychecks some time after Otakon, relying on cash flow from cons.

By July 31st, I was tired of waiting, and so was everyone else. We left. I packed up all my belongings and computer equipment lent by my father and myself. Steve was notified in a phone call that very day that we quit. I told him specifically that it included Duane, Jason, Kei, and Ellen.

Ellen: My situation was slightly different from Stepanie's. I did not have as much trouble getting my pay while I was working for IC. My payment was primarily handled by Kei via PayPal, as I was working off-site. I received my last paycheck from IC on March 31st.

By July 31st I had only been paid an amount equal to 1/3 a single month's paycheck by Kevin Bennett. My boyfriend at the time was supporting me. By July 31st his debt had piled up, and I could no longer afford to live with him. I quit IC with my fellow employees and returned to my parent's home to rebuild my life.

Stephanie: That was after Anime MidAtlantic in June, by the way.

Ellen: Yes, the small payment made by Kevin was in early July.

Duane: I came on during August of 2001. I had been working in the IT field, making almost $40k/year, but I didn't like it very much, so when I got wind that IC was in need of a translator, I went for it. Previously, Kevin's wife Sachiko Uchida had been doing translation for all the IC books. She had been working for two years or so, completely without pay. I was warned that I would be expected to work for free at first, but I had several thousand in savings, and I kept the IT job until March 2002. My first eight months of work with IC were unpaid.

Who warned you?

Duane: Stephanie warned me—as in a "You know how Steve is"-kind of warning. And she was right.

Stephanie: And then Steve confirmed it...

Duane: I had arranged with Steve that I would be paid beginning in December 2001. In April 2002, I still had not been paid. I fought and fought and finally got Steve to issue me backpay dating to December 2001, so effectively I went four months without pay, but half of it was retroactive. My pay rate was $2/page in each manga I did. Just for reference, industry standard is $5/page, 2.5 times what I made at IC. And there was a time when Steve tried to pay me even less—

Tried?

Duane: He's very forgetful, and he misunderstood one of our conversations to mean that I wanted $.02/word. That would have been far less overall than $2/page. Anyway, things went from there until the issues started arising in the spring of this year. My story basically mirrors Stephanie's at that point, aside from the constant menial chores I was made to do towards the end of my tenure, such as drafting emails for Steve, like I was a secretary or something. But before I sink into bitterness...

Ellen: May I add something very quickly? To clarify: while Kei was paying me via PayPal, it was Kevin who later denied me pay. Kei herself never denied me pay.

Stephanie: Yeah, Kei was told not to make any further payments to anyone via PayPal.

Duane: Nor did she ever deny Stephanie or myself pay.

Exactly how long have you been without pay? Was anyone else at the company paid during this time?

Stephanie: No paychecks were written for anyone from June 16 to July 31, when we quit. So Duane, Jason Balduf, Kei, and myself were without pay for six weeks (three quarterly pay periods) Ellen was without pay for four months. She was paid a monthly freelance rate. And for most of July, Steve refused to write any checks—even for bills and creditors. His way of dealing with the finances was to try and ignore everyone asking for money owed to them. He was constantly putting us all off, including a printer.

Ellen: As she said, I was unpaid for four months. I continued to work, however, because I loved my job and had faith the money would come. I realized other employees were being paid while I was not, but I wished the best for the company and did not quit until I could no longer afford to work, even with the promise of pay in the future.

Duane: Provided he was telling us the truth, Steve did not pay himself either during the six-week pay freeze. And Kevin has pretty much never been paid.

Stephanie: I think that's part of the reason they expect everyone else to work for free when they start there. Because if THEY had to, why not others?

Duane: We heard sob stories on a regular basis. This is not well known, but not long before we left, Steve offered Stephanie and me cash handouts of $100 each, from earnings from a small con. We refused them for three reasons. It was cash, which is untraceable and shady for both sides. It was only offered to the two of us, not to Kei or Jason or Ellen. That's partiality, and it disgusted us. Third, what could we have done with a measly $100 each?

Stephanie: It helped reaffirm the desire to quit and find other jobs.

Were you at any point given a reason for the lapse in payment?

Stephanie: Not enough money in the company account. It was valid, but when Kei set up an appointment with a loan officer at the bank, Steve never went to the meeting. He didn't want to ask his family to lend the company money either. And he didn't seem to be doing anything to raise substantial money for the company beyond going to small cons to sell books.

Duane: Which generated piddly amounts.

Stephanie: And "Save Ironcat" t-shirt ideas, which never got made. It was empty promises left and right.

Stephanie, you mentioned "several payments from distributors owed to the company." Were distributors late in paying IC Ent?

Stephanie: I think so. As the shipping department consisted of one person for the past 6 years, with a high turnover rate, the only time there seemed to be payments in a timely manner were when Kei first started working there. Once her duties started increasing, we had to find others to take on those duties. No one was able to catch up or keep up with the lag in shipping and invoices after that. At least, not as far as I could tell. The company didn't have any set late payment fees, so distribution companies got away with late payments A LOT in the past up to the present.

In time, problems in shipping became much more apparent. It was too much for one person to handle, but there was no help available beyond sporadic volunteers, and Steve didn't want to hire more employees to handle the increased production and shipping load. I think Kirk was the only employee we had who didn't have to work for free when he started. He was the last shipping personnel.

Duane: Just insufficient payments in the company bank account, not enough income from product sales.

Ellen: I was also told that there was a lack of funds in the IC account to pay me. I was told this, of course, while other employees were still receiving pay.

When was this?

Ellen: I honestly don't recall the specific date Kevin explained the situation to me. I believe I had been unpaid at least two months before I got an official explanation.

When you brought up the pay freeze with IC Ent, what was the response?

Stephanie: Well, the pay freeze...Every time I tried to ask for a specific date on payment, it got brushed off. I was told to be patient, to keep working and, well, "borrow money from my parents" to keep financially afloat. I nearly exploded with Steve then. My father's lent over $2000 of computer equipment to the company. He's come in on his own free time to fix computer problems time and again. And they've BEEN keeping me financially afloat by helping me with my car repairs and chiropractic care for several years. It was very insulting to me that Steve expected me to ask more of my parents like that.

Ellen: I don't believe my personal conversations with Steve are appropriate to air in public, but in summary I was told there was no money. Like Stepahnie, I was never given a date when the pay would arrive. I was asked to continue working for the good of the company.

Duane: Steve's basic attitude, not just towards us but towards the printer IC was in debt to and anyone else the company owed money, was, "I can only do what I can do."

Stephanie: And "I'll do what I can," which translated into NOTHING.

Duane: Which turned out to mean filibuster and delay as long as possible, not making any real effective effort that we could see towards bringing in more revenue.

What measures did you take that you hoped would bring your work payment?

Stephanie: The only thing I could do was to continue working on books and trying to get some out on time.

Ellen: Prior to quitting, I did my job for IC full time in hopes that doing so would generate the money necessary to fund my own paycheck. At this point, I have received only one more check from IC. I've made attempts to have a date set for the remainder of the money, but I have not received a date from the Bennetts.

Duane: At this point in time, all of us owed backpay (with the exception of Kei) have received one check. However, in every single case the amount on the check was lower than expected. We have not been offered a satisfactory reason as to why, though in my case at least I see what they did wrong. They repaid me for two pay periods I had already been paid for before the pay freeze went into effect, and they only paid me for one of the three they owed me from during the freeze.

Stephanie: The invoices were mislabeled to start, as well.

Duane: So we're still waiting to receive the rest of our backpay, and Kei has not been paid at all.

Do you still possess any work material owned by IC Ent?

Stephanie: I have personal files regarding my hours worked at the company. Even on my sick days and when I had injured my back (herniated disk), I still tried to work from home. As for books and whatnot, I only have my comp copies of graphic novels I worked on at the company. Our home is not a dumping ground for company property.

Ellen: I have no IC property at my home. I do have comp copies of a few books I worked on as well as digital files of all the work I did for my own portfolio.

Duane: Likewise, the only physical things I own are my own comp copies. I still possess all translated scripts I worked on for IC. I was several months ahead on scripts when we all quit. I did the company a favor of making sure everything I did was accessible before we left. That means that I'll probably never see any money for it and would have to fight legally if I wanted to. But oh well, it was that or be selfish. I thought I'd do them a favor, not that they deserved it in my opinion.

Has IC Ent told you when to expect full pay?

Duane: No, not at all.

Ellen: No.

Stephanie: No, even though I've talked to Kevin on AIM several times about the rest of our backpay. I get the runaround and "we're looking into it" spiel.

Have you received back pay since leaving the company?

Stephanie: I have received one check for an amount less than I am owed, according to information I received from Kei, courtesy of the company's accountant. I was shorted around $50 total. No word on when I'll get the rest of it.

Ellen: I also received a single check that was significantly less than what I was owed.

Duane: My response is the same as Stephanie's, though mine was short about $400, and it took over a month after our leaving the company for these checks to arrive.

Do you intend to return to work for IC Ent?

Stephanie: No!

Ellen: No, I do not.

Duane: Never with IC, though I continue in my job as a freelance translator specializing in manga.

You stated you resigned on July 31st. Why wait until now to make the conflict a public issue?

Stephanie: Because I was dealing with just getting my backpay. I didn't really feel like making a public thing about all this, but since the Bennetts dragged their feet on everything regarding our backpay, and how they messed it up, I couldn't care less now. In my eyes neither Kevin nor Steve have treated us with any true consideration, so I'm tired of being nice to the public about it. Also, there seems to be some rumor that says we want to work there again, which totally confuses me. I wanted to make it clear where I stand on all this. I was also busy dealing with the getting paperwork filed for the VA Department of Industry and Labor after we didn't receive our pay by August 15th. Ellen helped me with that.

Ellen: Personally, right now I still don't believe airing this issue publicly will benefit anyone involved. However, as Stephanie mentioned there have been rumors circulating about us that are untrue. Rumors get around the manga/anime industry fairly quickly. I would not want a false rumor affecting my relationship with a future employer or co-worker.

Duane: My answer to this question is almost identical to Stephanie's, so I leave it at that.

Do you plan to work again in the anime/manga industry?

Stephanie: I'd like to, but we'll see what comes my way. I don't plan on moving from VA. For the time being I've found a new job, so I'm going to concentrate on getting out of debt and actually building up a savings. I want to move on with my life before I go back to the American anime industry in any way.

Ellen: I'd love to continue working in the anime/manga industry. I am very grateful for my experience so far. If I had a chance I would also love to work again with my fellow former employees at IC. For now I am concentrating on getting as many odd jobs and as much freelance work as possible to pay my debt to my boyfriend ASAP.

Duane: I, in fact, still translate freelance for Digital Manga, so I haven't left the industry, but I only do one book currently (Hellsing), so I've picked up a part-time job delivering auto parts around the area. Eventually I would like to go back to translating manga full-time with a company local to the VA area, and as with Ellen I would like to have the same co-workers again—minus the Bennetts, of course.

According to the I.C. Entertainment website, Di Gi Charat: Dejiko's Champion Cup Theatre should be available by mid-October. Hanaukyo Maid Team, Nanaka 6/17, A.I. Revolution, How to Be an Angel, Charmed, and Wanderers have also been announced as future releases from IC Ent. ANN will continue to follow this story, and a follow-up will be posted within the next few weeks.

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