William M. Graves Jr., owner of Grave's Quality Chrysler-Plymouth in Falls Church, was on the line with what he called a "hot story." It was late morning last Friday and he was calling from his accountant's office in Florida. Stay tuned, he said. A faxed press release is to follow.

The handwritten press release came moments later and carried this banner headline:

"Employees Agree To Volunteer Their Services To Help Customer-Driven Dealership"

The press release told the rest of the story, or so it seemed. It said, in effect, that Grave's two-year-old car dealership was in serious financial trouble. To help save the dealership, "more than three-quarters" of the company's then-35 employees "agreed to perform their job duties without present or future compensation in order to keep the dealership functioning until a financial partnership arrangement can be completed."

Graves urged a reporter to contact his employees for confirmation.

The reporter found quite another story: angry people, a depleted staff, people who said that they were quitting as soon as they got the chance.

Graves had not lied, said Maria Lundy, comptroller of the dealership. On New Year's Eve, when he made his no-pay announcement, most of the company's employees indeed had agreed to work without pay for several weeks. "But most of those people were in shock," Lundy said.

On Jan. 2, only eight of Grave's employees showed up. The next day, six reported for work. "We were turning away customers because we did not have the staff," Lundy said. She said that she made "an executive decision" to restore partial pay to the dealership's parts and service staff.

"Without them, we would not have had any business at all," Lundy said.

Eighteen workers showed up Friday, the day Graves called The Washington Post with his "hot story." But many of those employees, among them parts manager Bryan Lamb, said the habitually optimistic Graves had simply misjudged his staff.

"There is no way that I'm going to work for nothing, and then take a chance that he will still be in business. That would be foolish," said Lamb, who added that he is looking for another job.