The recent closure of SLO County Sitters, a service that matched baby sitters with families, was so sudden its sitters were not paid for their last two weeks of work and families who paid up front, as the company required, complain they are out thousands of dollars.
After little more than a year in business, Manager Tina Porter announced she was dissolving the company in an e-mail sent to families and sitters on March 3. In the e-mail to sitters she also let them know that there was not enough money to cover the last pay period. That announcement came only two days before payday.
“Crap, I have a car payment to make and we’re not getting paid?” Nicole Torres said of her reaction to the sudden notice. “I kind of freaked out.”
Torres and about 45 other “contractors” still have not been paid. Several who spoke to New Times said they had about 40 hours of unpaid work. The sitters were given contact information for families and encouraged by Porter to continue working independently of the company, but were told there was not enough cash on the books to cover their final weeks.
Porter sent another e-mail to sitters about a week later telling them that she is working to bring the company back from the dead by selling it, and if the deal goes through they would be retroactively paid.
Alycia Bohnhoff, who started work in June, said the latest e-mail was a “complete 180” from the earlier notice she received.
“She was just avoiding all questions on repaying anyone last week,” Bohnhoff said.
Because of the company’s structure, families who used the service lost even more money than sitters. SLO County Sitters clients had to pay up front. A 200-hour package, for example, cost $2,500. But no one with unused hours has seen a refund.
Aaron Wolf, a teacher with a 3-year-old, paid $2,500 to the company in January. After the closure announcement was e-mailed to clients, Wolf responded to see if he was getting his money back. He was told he wasn’t, and his best bet was to file a claim with his credit card company. Other clients were encouraged to do the same, Porter said in her response to Wolf.
“And we’re broke,” Wolf said. “We put down all the money we had to set our childcare straight for the next five or six months.”
The Wolf family is not the only one in such a situation. Dianne DeTurris, mother of a 2-year-old, also put down $2,500 this year.
“I had a good experience with the company; they were running a very good operation up until the day that they weren’t operating,” she said.
Wolf and DeTurris have continued to employ the same sitters, but are paying them directly, as Porter has recommended to all families and sitters. DeTurris said she is also paying her sitters for the hours SLO County Sitters did not cover.
After the initial e-mails to clients, Porter sent another announcement stating she was working to give them their money back if the company is sold, or by some other saving grace.
The closure was sudden and blindsided clients and sitters. Porter, whose voice trembled as she choked back tears, said she poured herself into the company and wished she could continue.
“I am a good person. I believe so strongly in this business,” she said. “I care about our clients and I will absolutely work night and day to make sure that everyone is paid back.”
Porter said there is a potential buyer who would only get the company on the grounds that they would pay back all the sitters and clients. If not, the other option is bankruptcy.
Justine Caires, who worked as a nanny for Porter before joining SLO County Sitters, contacted New Times to say good words about Porter.
“That’s not like [Porter] to just walk away and I know she won’t.”
SLO County Sitters began going under in September, Porter said. She blamed the closure on the economic downturn and mounting employee costs.