Ghost Town in the Sky, an amusement park in Maggie Valley, failed to pay employees for their final two weeks of work before shutting down for the winter.
While most employees were told upfront that they might not be paid their full wages immediately and were given the choice to work or not, the company could still be in violation of state labor laws.
“The law says they must pay all accrued wages to employees on the regularly scheduled payday,” said Darrell Sanders, supervisor for Wage and Hour Bureau with the N.C. Department of Labor. “Even with the employees’ agreement, nobody can waive the law. As soon as midnight ticked by on payday, the company automatically went into violation of the law and will be until the employees are paid.”
CEO Steve Shiver said the company still plans to pay employees what they are owed.
“They will be paid as quickly as possible. I am doing everything I can every day to make sure that takes place,” said Shiver.
In the meantime, there may be little the employees can do about it other than wait. Ghost Town is operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy with hopes of reorganizing and regaining its footing. Workers who are not paid by an employer usually take their complaints to the labor department, but the department has no jurisdiction when bankruptcy proceedings are in play.
“It is a large wrench to throw in the machinery,” Sanders said.
Ghost Town filed for bankruptcy early this year. In addition to a $9.5 million mortgage, the park has a trail of unpaid bills with more than 215 companies totaling $2.5 million, including local contractors, electricians, media outlets and equipment rental companies.
Shiver held a meeting with employees going into the final few weeks of the season in October to fill them in on the financial status of the amusement park.
When Shiver leveled with workers and told them cash flow was tight, it came as no surprise. A few times during the year, the park couldn’t make payroll on Friday and instead relied on revenue from weekend ticket sales to pay employees the following Monday. The park eventually moved payday from Friday to Monday on a permanent basis, according to employees. Even then, the park didn’t always make full payroll, and would only give employees a partial paycheck and make up the difference the following Monday after another weekend of revenue came in.
At the meeting, Shiver gave employees two choices: shut the park down early or remain open the rest of the October. If they stayed open, however, there was a chance they wouldn’t bring in enough revenue to pay everyone on time.
Shiver then left the room while employees voted with a show of hands whether to keep working. The vote was unanimous.
“We all knew there was a possibility we may not get paid,” said David Aldridge, a Maggie resident who worked at Ghost Town. “We were willing to risk it.”
Shiver said the dedication of employees is remarkable.
“I have such great employees,” Shiver said. “It shows the dedication of all of us, including myself, to make sure Maggie Valley and Ghost Town in the Sky and all that goes with it survives. I am very humbled by their support and continued efforts.”
While Shiver never suggested employees would be volunteering their time in exchange for no pay, that was certainly in the back of their minds, Aldridge said.
“We were asked if we were willing to take half our paychecks now and half later,” Aldridge said. “Nobody ever agreed to not get paid. Everybody expected to get their last paycheck.”
The paychecks haven’t been forthcoming yet, but Aldridge said he isn’t mad. He said most employees understand and care deeply about the park and want to help it succeed. Aldridge said Shiver was a good leader and an inspiration for employees.
“He was out there working every day as hard as everybody else. He was trying to do all he could to keep Ghost Town going,” Aldridge said.
Shiver has exemplified the all-hands-on-deck attitude that allowed Ghost Town to make it through the year.
“I bussed tables, I swept floors, I blew leaves off the streets to make sure our guests could enjoy themselves,” Shiver said.
Not all employees were at the meeting when Shiver leveled with the state and the informal vote was held, however. The meeting was billed as a non-mandatory staff meeting and the topic wasn’t shared in advance, so Ron Coates, a worker who lives in Hot Springs, opted not to make the hour-long drive on his day off to attend.
No one in management ever told him what had transpired or warned him that he may not be paid if he kept working.
“Nobody ever said we might not get paid,” Coates said.
Coates has filed a claim with the bankruptcy court for $386 after being told by the state Labor Department that was his only recourse.
Meanwhile, water to the amusement park has been shut off due to failure to pay bills, according to the Maggie Valley Sanitary District.