Back in Kentucky, times were tough for Phillip Dickinson. First he couldn't get work. Then his wife left. "I had nothing going for me but playing music and staying drunk," Dickinson said. Two weeks ago, he arrived in Washington to take a job that he hoped would change his luck.
Instead, things just got worse.
Dickinson drove to Fairfax County Oct. 10 in a van crowded with seven other unemployed men from Owensboro, Ky., hired to sell pumpkins at roadside stands throughout suburban Washington. After working 14-hour days and being housed in a Fairfax County basement that he said was rife with rats, he quit.
"We weren't treated like humans," he said. "It wasn't at all what we were promised -- we were to work eight hours a day, live in a decent house and have time to ourselves."
Dickinson has company in his complaints against Ray Lynn, a Fairfax County resident who, according to farmers who supply him with pumpkins, is one of the largest operators of roadside stands in the region.
In interviews with a dozen current and former Lynn employees at seven different stands and in Owensboro, the workers repeated stories of 100-hour work weeks, no days off, no breaks, days without access to a shower. They said Lynn docks pay if a worker breaks his rules, including a midnight curfew. Some said they slept on old mattresses in the basement of a house on Route 1 in Fairfax County; others said they slept in the back of broken-down vans.
Some of those living in the vans parked alongside the pumpkin stands said they have had to ward off would-be burglars at night, some of whom were wielding knives and pistols. To protect themselves, one employee keeps a Rottweiler dog and others arm themselves with "metal poles and stakes," according to Tom DeHart, a stand supervisor.
By Lynn's account, he and his pumpkin stands are doing the "riffraff" of Owensboro, where Lynn once lived, a big favor.
"A lot of these guys have never held a job, they're on welfare. If they weren't working for me they would be bumming money off their mom and dad," said Lynn, 43, who has operated roadside stands in the Washington area for more than a decade. "They are lucky I'm giving them a job." He said he doesn't do anything illegal or improper and is an "honest man trying to make a living."
DeHart said some employees get along with Lynn, including himself. "He has been good to me," he said. A couple other employees who declined to give their names also said Lynn is a "fine man" to work for.
But DeHart, who also is from Owensboro, added that the workers who don't care for the way Lynn operates can't do much about it because they have to wait until they get paid: "They can't walk back to Kentucky and they don't have any money to get there any other way."
Melinda Artman, deputy zoning administrator for Fairfax, said, "I'm outraged because it violates basic decency" to have people living in vans and crowded conditions. "We are putting Mr. Lynn on notice" that the county is sending inspectors to all his stands and places where he is housing people.
Artman said county inspectors located two roadside stands belonging to Lynn that did not have proper permits last week. In a 400-square-mile county, where roadside stands come and go quickly and change sites, knowing where they are and keeping them in compliance with the law is like "trying to hit a tank with a fly swatter," Artman said.
Lynn is the county's largest user of free temporary business permits, county officials said. The permits allow him to sell his goods, which range from Valentine's Day roses to Christmas trees, in any one place for up to 21 days.
After Washington Post inquiries about whether Lynn purchased a business license to operate his pumpkin stands in Alexandria, city officials went to his Duke Street stands and discovered that Lynn did not have the required license. On Thursday, he paid $500 for the license, Alexandria officials and Lynn said.
A Kenny Rogers look-alike who wears gold or diamond rings on most fingers, Lynn declined to talk about the scope of his business.
Asked how many stands he operates, he first said "a couple." Pressed further, he said "three or four." When told that Fairfax County had him on record as having eight, he said that he and "two brothers and two partners" had 19 in Virginia and Maryland. Lynn added that it was "nobody's business" what he is doing.
Lynn said his employees who sleep in vans next to the outdoor stands are paid an extra $200 a month and can get a shower when "they come in every couple of days to get one."
He said his workers are expected to sell pumpkins from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days week and are paid about $2.50 an hour. The federal minimum wage is $3.80 an hour. Lynn said that because the men "sit around for a lot of that time, it probably works out to $10 an hour when you figure they really only work two or three hours a day."
According to Labor Department spokesman Bob Cuccia, an employer can add a reasonable calculation for housing expenses incurred when determining if the minimum wage law is being met. Cuccia added, that the housing has to be decent and comply with health and safety standards.
Lynn said the boarded-up house at 7024 Richmond Hwy., where Dickinson and other workers stay, is in livable condition. He said any stories about rats "is a lie." He said seven people live there, including himself sometimes, and said he did not consider that "overcrowding." He said he was unaware that it is against Fairfax County zoning rules to house more than four unrelated people in a home without a special permit.
"What really upset me was that I didn't feel like a human at all," said Dickinson, who said he woke up one morning and found a rat "the size of a groundhog" on his chest.
"It was like the guy thought he was the police and could do anything. If a person came home five minutes after midnight he lost almost half his week's pay," he said.
Lynn said he had to impose strict rules such as the curfew because he had a crew that needed discipline.
In Owensboro, a manufacturing town of 60,000 near the Ohio River, where the Ragu spaghetti sauce factory is one of the main employers, Dickinson said a lot of people don't have much, but "they get better treatment than I've seen up here."
Dickinson, who quit after working six days at Lynn's pumpkin stand in Barcroft shopping center in Fairfax, said he is worried about the other people still working for Lynn. He was able to leave because of the kindness of a customer, Arlington resident Bronik Lisowski.
After chatting with Dickinson as he bought two $3 pumpkins last week, Lisowski was so appalled at the working and living conditions the Kentucky man described that he took Dickinson home and got him jobs doing carpentry and gardening work.
"I've heard of illegal aliens being treated this way, but never Americans," Lisowski said. "All the people like me who just buy things at these stands have no idea what goes on behind them."