Dan Ewald needed to do better as the breadwinner for his family of four.
Running his own small construction business was no longer cutting it, which is what led him to the Menards store in Rhinelander, Wisconsin less than three years ago.
"Inside I saw these big banners that said, 'Be your own boss and make big money,'" Ewald tells City Pages. "The job was hauling loads from the store and delivering them. It sounded like the kind of thing I was looking for."
A Menards' manager told Ewald he would need to get a commercial driver's license and purchase his own semitruck to become an independent hauler. As luck would have it, Menards had trucks for sale for anywhere from $34,000 to $60,000. Ewald passed, and bought an International brand truck for $23,000 online.
Ewald started in early 2014. On paper he was classified as a contract hauler, one of 1,200 of the same ilk, who truck deliveries out of the company's nearly 300 stores in 14 states. In reality, it was more like Ewald was employed as Menards' behind-the-wheel tool.
The company told him where he had to be and when. After making the two-hour drive to the store from his home to pick up loads, Ewald was required to make the deliveries in the order Menards had laid them out, even if the route they picked took inefficient detours, costing him hundreds of dollars extra in out-of-pocket expenses.
The company installed a GPS in his cab. Not to help him. To hound him.
Says Ewald, "Quite a bit of the time they'll be calling and asking you, 'The GPS says you're not moving. Why?' I'd be like, 'I was taking a shit, that's why.'"
Menards paid per delivery. The longer the haul, the bigger the payday. It paid well. There were some thousand dollar days. Bonuses were part of the deal.
It was an especially sweet deal for Menards. While it demanded that Ewald be available to deliver at a moment's notice, he says there were plenty of days when the itinerary included only a single delivery. The seasonal work often meant lots of days in a row without work.
Ewald shouldered all costs: gas, insurance, health care, licensing fees, truck payment. Yet Menards classified him as an independent contractor, which absolved it from paying payroll taxes, health insurance, and other benefits.
One day in early 2015, Ewald lay in his truck in the Menards' parking lot. He was supposed to be picking up his deliveries. But paralyzing pain in his belly had him in the fetal position.
A manager approached the cab.
What's up with the slacking? Ewald was asked.
"I was pretty much told to get up and get to work," the now 54-year-old remembers.
Another manager sensing the severity of the situation intervened. She drove Ewald to a nearby hospital. Six months later, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer.
Menards fired Ewald almost a year ago. It happened after he told the company he needed more work and couldn't just sit around waiting for a call.
But Menards hasn't heard the last of him. Ewald's blowing the whistle, and his tune has echoed all the way up to the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board. Last week, Ewald testified before the NLRB as a representative of the 1,200 similarly situated Menards truckers.
According to Seth Goldstein of the Office and Professional Employees International Union, which took Ewald's case to regulators, federal officials are investigating allegations that Menards circumvents employment law by misclassifying its drivers as independent haulers.
"We strongly believe Menards needs to treat these workers as employees, with all the benefits that employees have," Goldstein says. "Here you have a company that tracks these workers, disciplines them, has a bonus system, and they're trying to get away on the cheap by calling them independent contractors. You can't have both ways."
It's not the first time Menards has run afoul of American labor law. It's not even the first time this year: In April, Menards settled with the NLRB after its brutal union-busting tactics — a 60 percent pay cut for any manager whose store formed a union, to name one such measure — were brought to light.
Menards' officials at its headquarters in Eau Claire declined comment for this story.