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Risky Rides: Carnival Workers' Grueling Hours May Threaten Safety

Image: Fair goers ride the Riptide roller coaster at the Salem Fair, in Salem, Va.

Fair goers ride the Riptide roller coaster at the Salem Fair, in Salem, Va., Sunday July 13, 2014. Norm Shafer for NBC News

As summer temperatures rise, carnivals and county fairs pop up in small towns across the United States. They appear for a weekend or run through the fall, and they all have a few things in common: cotton candy, corn dogs, and classic amusement rides like roller coasters and Ferris wheels.

But these attractions may come with hidden dangers: Seasonal migrant workers who staff many of these carnivals often put in long, grueling hours operating rides under conditions some worker advocates say threaten the health and safety of workers and fairgoers alike.

One Fourth of July weekend three years ago, Samantha Goad was at the Salem Fair in Virginia with a close friend. The sun had long since set when they decided to ride the sleek, fast, red-and-blue Riptide rollercoaster one last time.

Goad, then 17, had just finished her junior year at Roanoke Catholic School. A promising athlete, she was a star of her high school softball team. She pitched, played first and third base and was good enough, in the eyes of her coach, to shoot for a college scholarship.

"We saw the other car coming for us, and we braced ourselves."

The two girls hopped into the second car from the front and secured the safety bar over their laps. The coaster climbed steeply before dropping down a fast dip. Then, according to Goad and others on the ride, the coaster came to an abrupt stop. It was stuck. Goad and the other passengers shouted to the operator below. But he didn’t seem to hear them – and released another coaster onto the track.

As the second coaster accelerated toward them, they knew within seconds they would be struck from behind. "We looked back and saw the other car coming for us,” Goad says, “and we braced ourselves."

The Riptide, as with all the midway rides at the Salem Fair, was run by Deggeller Attractions, a family-owned business in Stuart, Florida, which touts itself as “America’s No. 1 carnival company.” Deggeller runs midways in half a dozen states on the Eastern Seaboard, from Florida to Pennsylvania. It’s one of over 100 traveling carnival companies that manage amusement rides and midways throughout North America.

No overtime or minimum wage for seasonal workers

According to a 2013 report by the American University Washington College of Law Immigrant Justice Clinic, which represents immigrants in legal cases, the industry is troubled, marred by frequent accidents and poor treatment of an overworked and underpaid workforce, who often work about 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and whose exhaustion may place themselves and ride patrons at risk. Tight schedules require companies to break down rides and set them up at the next location with alarming speed, often within 48 hours. This means operators sometimes work without sleep until the midway is up and running in the new town.

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Some companies, including Deggeller, depend heavily on seasonal migrant workers, hired by means of H-2B temporary work visas, to keep labor costs down. At the height of summer, there are some 5,000 migrant workers running midways across the country. Deggeller, like other operators, relies on a provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that exempts companies from paying minimum wage or overtime to seasonal workers.

The heavily foreign carnival workforce has little fluency in English and little knowledge of their rights, and so safety and wage violations tend to go unreported, according to the law clinic report, which was based on interviews with workers in Maryland, Virginia and Mexico, and conducted in collaboration with the clinic’s client, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc., a nonprofit organization focused on improving the working conditions of migrant workers in the United States.

Florida Legal Services (FLS), a nonprofit civil rights firm, filed two lawsuits against Deggeller in March 2013 on behalf of 19 Mexican migrant carnival workers. According to depositions and interviews with several of the plaintiffs, these workers believed they were contracted at about $300 a week for a 40-hour work week. Yet they often ended up working 70 to 80 hours a week, with no additional compensation.

“It seemed like he didn’t understand English and looked very tired."

Enrique Vasquez, from Tlapacoyan, Mexico, a town that provides Deggeller with much of its migrant workforce, was a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “I worked for seven seasons” for Deggeller, Vasquez said, operating rides at large state fairs in Virginia, Maryland and Florida, typically for six to eight months each season. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, he said, he would start work at 9 or 10 in the morning and work until 11 at night. By Sunday night, he said, he would be operating rides while completely exhausted. On the days Deggeller moved its rides to the next town, which required breaking down the rides at the end of a long shift, he said he would often work 40 to 50 hours in the space of three days.

Earlier this year, FLS withdrew its wage violation claims and concluded that Deggeller Attractions, and the carnival industry in general, was in compliance with the law. According to Greg Schell, lead attorney on the suit, the FLSA exemption for seasonal workers means that “you can pay workers ten cents an hour if you choose,” he said. The lawsuit was dismissed earlier this year.

Amusement ride accidents are on the rise

But while long hours and low pay for carnival workers may be legal, these exhausted workers sometimes make mistakes. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which tracks emergency room admissions, has documented a dramatic increase in amusement ride accidents over the past five years, data that includes both permanent amusement parks and traveling carnivals. The agency estimates 44,000 injuries on amusement rides in 2012, up from nearly 30,000 in 2007. (These annual estimates are generated by CPSC based on samples of carnival accident reports from patients at 96 hospital emergency rooms in the U.S.)

According to Saferparks.org, a private watchdog organization that until 2009 compiled data on amusement ride injuries, park patrons are to blame for most of these injuries, for failing to abide by safety regulations, but equipment failure and operator error are responsible for as many as 30 percent of the accidents.

At the Salem Fair on that Fourth of July weekend three years ago, George Roseberry was sitting in the first seat of the Riptide coaster with his girlfriend Brittney Simms, directly in front of Samantha Goad and her friend. He recalls shouting repeatedly to the operator to stop the second coaster as it barreled toward them down the tracks, but the operator didn’t even seem to hear them.

“I knew we were about to get hit really hard,” Roseberry says. “All I could do was close my eyes. I don't remember anything after that.”

Roseberry said he was knocked out by the impact of the second coaster slamming into them; Goad felt a sharp pain in her head and back as she was thrown forward.

After that, Goad says, it was all a blur. She recalls medical technicians placing her head and back in restraints and lifting her onto a gurney and into an ambulance. The following day in the hospital she learned that she had suffered severe whiplash and a cervical spine injury. Her softball career was over.

Five others were hurt in the collision, according to three separate lawsuits filed by Goad, Simms and Roseberry, a truck driver, who said he now lives with such severe back pain that he has been unable to find steady work and has at times had to live on disability.

The suits, filed against Deggeller Attractions, were settled out of court in May (Goad received $50,000, Simms $60,000 and Roseberry an undisclosed amount, according to the plaintiff's attorney.) A countersuit by Deggeller against Roseberry, claiming he caused the accident when his hat flew off his head and became lodged in the tracks, was dismissed in July.

“I knew we were about to get hit really hard.”

The Riptide operator was a seasonal worker from Mexico who failed to notice the stalled car, said plaintiff’s attorney, John Edwards. In an interview, Roseberry said, “It seemed like he didn’t understand English and looked very tired. I’m sure he had a long day, he just didn’t seem to be paying attention to anything.”

Roseberry said most of the rides were already shutting down when he boarded the Riptide that evening. The lawsuits allege that fatigue was a decisive factor in the operator’s failure to stop the second coaster– or even notice the passengers shouting from the stuck one in front. In a deposition, the operator said he had worked long days all weekend, according to Edwards. The accident took place just before 11 p.m. on Sunday, when he was at the end of long shift.

Vasquez, the former carnival worker, said he’d never been involved in an accident himself but said that in his experience, Deggeller did not always put safety first. He recounted an incident from a few seasons ago, when he was working for Deggeller at the Maryland State Fair and injured his leg riding a bicycle. He went to a nearby clinic, he said, where a doctor told him he had torn a ligament and prescribed him an anti-inflammatory. He says the doctor instructed him to rest the leg and said that he should not operate machinery while he was taking the medication. But Vasquez said that his supervisor assigned him to operate a carnival ride the next day, despite being aware of his injury and the narcotic effects of the medication.

Seasonal workers usually return every year

Deggeller referred interview requests to an attorney, Wayne Pierce, who said he was unaware of Vasquez’s injury and would not comment on that particular incident. “The Deggellers run a very good, very well-respected, small family business,” he said. “You don’t get to where they are by treating your employees poorly.”

Deggeller provides several benefits for workers, Pierce said, such as covering workers’ transportation costs from their home country to the United States and providing workers with temporary housing in mobile trailers ($60 per week is deducted from workers' paychecks to partially reimburse the company for rent.) Deggeller also pays for workers’ medical visits and for their travel to stores or laundromats, he said.

According to Pierce, “80 or 90 percent” of Deggeller’s seasonal workers “come back year after year…and therefore there’s a very strong basis that these folks know what their job entails, and they like it. So the likelihood that any individual was not aware of what they were getting into is very small.”

In responding to workers’ claims about lengthy work weeks, he pointed to the seasonal nature of the carnival business, which is busier in summer and quieter during the shoulder seasons. “For them to take the position … that they were regularly working 60 or 80 hours-that’s not the way the season works,” Pierce said. “If you took the entire season and averaged it out, it’s probably going to be over 40 [hour weeks]. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 45 or possibly a little bit more than that on a seasonal basis.” Workers are paid a set amount, Pierce said, whether they work more or fewer than 40 hours in any given week.

Meanwhile, FLS continues to attempt to build a legal case against Deggeller. In May 2014, the group filed a new lawsuit in Arkansas, claiming the company violated state law by not paying the foreign workers minimum wage. In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Deggeller argued that the minimum wage complaint is preempted by the FLSA. The lawsuit also accuses Deggeller of tax fraud and breach of contract. According to court documents, Deggeller refutes all claims made but did not respond to requests for comment on the Arkansas suit. The case is still pending.

“You don’t get to where [the Deggellers] are by treating your employees poorly.”

With the future of his legal efforts against Deggeller uncertain, Schell insists that something needs to be done to make carnivals safer -- for workers and the general public.

Carnivals are a low profit-margin business, he said. “There’s a great incentive to cut corners on safety. The workers will say, without exception, they have no training on how to properly operate the Octopus ride, for example. So you better hope it doesn’t spin out of control,” Schell said. “There’s a safety issue here in addition to the concern about just people not being treated as we would like people to be treated under our wage laws.”

Meanwhile, Goad, the former softball star, is now 19 and attends Ferrum College in Virginia. She said she still suffers from neck and back pain and has difficulty sleeping, and doctors have told her she might be dealing with the painful effects of her roller coaster injury for the rest of her life.

After going to the Salem Fair every summer since she was eight years old, she hasn’t returned since the accident. “I’ll never ride another roller coaster again,” she said.

This story was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, where John Carlos Frey is a reporting fellow.