State labor department investigates closed Spirit Gallery Tattoo in New London
Mar. 17—NEW LONDON — Known for its New Orleans-inspired ambiance and custom designed tattoos, Spirit Gallery Tattoo on Colman Street closed at the beginning of this year.
Now the state Department of Labor Wage and Workplace Standards Division is investigating claims by five of the the shop's workers. Two of the workers who filed claims told The Day the owners are being investigated for misclassifying its workers as independent contractors.
Independent contractors, as opposed to employees, are not entitled to Medicare, Social Security, unemployment or workers compensation.
Labor Department Spokesperson Juliet Manalan confirmed it investigating the claims. She said depending on the scope of the issue it can take six months or longer to settle the case. The wage unit works with employers to recover any back wages that are due, may levy penalties or may refer the case to the Attorney General or Chief State's Attorney, if needed.
Spirit Gallery Tattoo moved to Colman Street in 2019. Former owner Lari Mostro passed away in 2022 after which Michael Dodd, Mostro's longtime partner, and Mostro's husband Frank Kucienski took over.
According to land records, COLMAN LLC purchased the two buildings on 377 Colman St. where Spirit Gallery and The Fog Factory are located in 2021 for $310,000. Kucienski and Dodd are listed as the principal members of COLMAN LLC.
Dodd did not respond to phone and text messages about the state investigation and Kucienski could not be reached.
After being fired in November, tattoo artist Chad Wilson filed a complaint with the Department of Labor, claiming the shop owed him more than $30,000 in unpaid wages.
Wilson said he started working at the salon in August 2022 after answering an ad for a full-time tattoo artist and was hired by Dodd. Wilson was informed he would be classified as an independent contractor, which he said is a common practice in the tattoo world.
Arianna Brett, who started working at the shop two months before Wilson, said independent contractors are their own business owners in a way, scheduling their own hours and paying individual taxes.
But Brett said they were asked to work on the premises from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. and come in half an hour earlier.
"It's as if we were on a time clock without a time clock," she said.
Wilson said the artists were scheduled to work 40 hours a week and they had to attend an unpaid meeting once a month that lasted a few hours.
They were also expected to split half their hourly earnings with the shop.
Wilson said tattoos cost $150 an hour so the artist made $75 an hour; and it cost $165 for covering up tattoos. That didn't include the time it took to draw and come up with a tattoo before the appointment.
Wilson, who has been tattooing for 26 years, was not a fan of this arrangement. Wilson said he could complete a tattoo in an hour or two while it might take the person next to him up to five hours if they've only been tattooing for two or three years.
Above all, he said it made him a employee, not an independent contractor.
"I'm learning that the reason this is a common problem inside the tattoo industry is because owners are not held accountable to the full extent of the law," Wilson said. "I just want all tattoo artists to have the same rights that every other employee is given."
The state labor department has a test called the "ABC test" to help determine whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor.
In order to be considered an independent contractor, someone has to "A" be free from direction and control in connection with their service; "B", perform their service "either outside the usual course of business of the employer or outside all the employer's places of business;" and "C", be customarily engaged in "an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business of the same nature as the service performed."
Brett said labeling she and her fellow artists as independent contractors got the owners out of paying certain taxes, unemployment and maternity leave. Brett is 35 weeks pregnant.
Brett, married to a state trooper, said she is fortunate enough where she doesn't have to work but tattooing is what she loves to do. She said many others relied on the job as their only source of income.
Spirit Gallery was Brett's third shop since she began tattooing in 2020. She said she experienced scams and similar malpractice at prior shops. She said she began earning $100 an hour at Spirit before eventually being bumped up to $150. She had to give half of that back to the shop.
She was given no contract when she started. She said the artists were given no pay stubs, or anything resembling one.
Brett said a client would pay the front desk either in cash or with a credit card. If paid in cash, the artist would get paid in cash with their tip right after the appointment. If paid with a card, the artist would get paid by check on Mondays.
But she said all she received were mobile deposits into her checking account. There was little to no paper trail.
"Nothing prevented them from skimming at the top," she said.
Brett is now working at Midnight Angel in Groton where she is still considered an independent contractor, but she signed a contract when she was hired and gets to schedule her own hours.
Brett and Wilson were among seven tattoo artists, one body piercer and three front desk workers, at Spirit Gallery. Brett said artists started leaving one by one after Wilson departed until she said there was barely anyone left. She resigned Jan. 2.
Wilson filed for unemployment two days after being fired. Workers misclassified as independent contractors have a chance to qualify for unemployment benefits. That was determined last year in a Connecticut Supreme Court case called Vogue v. Administrator, Unemployment Compensation Act.
Similar to this case, Vogue, a body art and piercing business in Waterford offered tattoo services which a tattoo artist, classified as an independent contractor, provided. The artist performed the tattoo services himself, provided his own supplies and determined the price for such services. He would keep 50% of the customer's sale and give the other 50% to the business.
The court determined the business did not satisfy all three parts of the ABC Test because the tattoo services were not outside of its "usual course of business" among other reasons.
After three months of deliberation, Wilson said he started receiving $82 a week in unemployment in February. He said the state has not responded to an appeal he made on Dec. 8 for a higher amount.