CLEVELAND — Just weeks before its announced opening, a proposed hemp manufacturing facility in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood has been sued in federal court by two employees, claiming their employer, North Coast Natural Solutions, has failed to pay them for more than a month’s worth of paid training. Multiple former and current employees who have not yet joined in the possible class action lawsuit also claim they have not been paid.
In September 2018, Cleveland native Ty Williams, the self-described CEO of Level 5 Global Corp., announced a new company had plans to open the manufacturing facility specializing in hemp products, including building materials, disposable straws and CBD oil. As part of the endeavor, as many as 650 jobs would be created and the business would operate out of a vacant industrial building on Kirby Avenue across from the former home of National Acme.
The project, which would be financed entirely by private investors, was viewed by many city and county leaders as a much-needed jolt to Glenville and its high unemployment rate. At the time, Williams said employees would be paid $17 an hour and would receive excellent health insurance benefits, free childcare and free transportation.
Over the next several months, multiple job fairs were held and approximately 180 people were hired. In order to prepare the new hires for their jobs, employees had to undergo several weeks of training at Cuyahoga Community College, including non-credit instruction on industrial safety in addition to shop math and measurement. Tri-C also offered the company, North Coast Natural Solutions LLC., space on campus to hold its own training sessions.
Employees were to be paid for attending the training sessions. However, more than a month after the training started, most employees have yet to be paid, according to court records and interviews with numerous current and former employees.
On Monday, the law firm of Sobel, Wade & Mapley filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of two clients, Tenita Bryant, the company’s former VP of human resources, as well as Theodore McQueen, who was hired by North Coast as a manufacturing worker. The lawsuit alleges Williams and North Coast violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Ohio Minimum Fair Wage Standards Act and the Prompt Pay Act.
The lawsuit may also reach class action status.
McQueen said he left his job as a drywall installer to join North Coast because of the benefits, the pay and its proximity to his home in Glenville.
“This opportunity was supposed to help lift the community and provide jobs to people in the community at a decent wage where they could still live in the community,” McQueen said. “There were big promises, big promises in those first two weeks when we were filling out W2s.”
The problems started almost immediately, former and current employees said. Many workers had to fill out multiple different W2s and I-9s because Williams claimed there were issues with the payroll system.
According to the lawsuit, Bryant, the former VP of human resources, was to receive a $25,000 signing bonus upon her being hired in January as part of her employment agreement. Bryant still has not received the signing bonus, the lawsuit states.
In mid-April, Williams told McQueen and other employees that the bank could not process all of the paychecks in a timely manner. Three days later, Williams reportedly told employees that the company was switching to a new payroll system and that employees would receive a $150 bonus for each day that their paychecks were late.
“I thought, ‘that will help us with the deficit that we are in,” McQueen said.
Instead, the hole only deepened, McQueen said.
At the end of April, Williams reportedly told employees that his private investors did not want to cover the entire payroll expense at once and that employees would instead receive two separate checks. About a week later, Williams told employees that the bank could not print the checks because, “the bank ran out of paper,” the lawsuit alleges.
The following day, the paychecks bounced, the lawsuit states.
“You feel angry. You feel depressed. You feel psychotic,” McQueen said. “I was feeling defeated. I was feeling like, ‘Okay what’s going on here… I need my money. What’s going on?’ … I reached out to [Williams] to see what is going on with the money and he snapped at me. He pretty much told me, ‘This is my business. You can’t tell me how to run my business.’”
Denise Cole, a former employee, said Williams offered odd explanations and offers while the employees paychecks remained in limbo.
“I remember one time he told people if you want to go get a payday loan, go ahead. He said, ‘Get the loan and I’ll pay for it,’” Cole said. “People said, ‘How are we going to go to a payday loan and we don’t even have paystubs to show that we are working?’”
Williams has not returned multiple calls for comment. News 5 has, however, received copies of text messages that Williams has reportedly sent to employees. In the text messages, Williams reportedly instructed employees not to cash their paychecks all at one time and urged employees, "No more shenanigans" at the bank.
“We are good to go. We have had the investors bank, our bank, our attorneys and their attorneys meet [sic] [Monday] so that this does not happen going forward,” Williams reportedly said in a text message. “Our attorneys are going over the contracts that are necessary to be put in place so that our payroll will continue to flow. We haven’t completed what needs to be done by the attorneys. The attorneys will have this finished within the next couple of days. I know it’s hard for you and it’s very hard for me. I realize that it is extremely hard for you to be patient, but we are getting things to move forward everything will be handled together.”
According to additional text messages obtained by News 5, Williams has reportedly told some employees that training will resume next Tuesday at Tri-C. However, a Tri-C spokesman said there is no training scheduled.