The owner of a Utah game studio is going to gaol for not paying his employees. Criminal prosecution for nonpayment of wages is rare. Incarceration is even more rare, but it is deserved for a guy like Dave Rushton, considering the lives he upended four years ago at Sensory Sweep Studios in suburban Salt Lake City.
An actual criminal prosecution for unpaid wages had not happened in Utah for 10 years when the state began investigating Rushton's studio in 2009. On October 10, Rushton, 57, began serving a one-year sentence, and still owes his workers $US1.2 million, according to Utah's attorney general.
When a major client folded in 2008, Sensory Sweep didn't lay off workers or close its doors, it kept on chugging. That sounds great, until you realise that no one was getting paid — except for Rushton, some of his family members, and favoured friends. Rushton was accused of selectively paying some employees, justifying it by saying the licensing companies were slow to pay and holding him to confidentiality agreements that forbade giving a real explanation.
Employees noticed in 2008 that contributions to their 401(k) plans (similar to superannuation here in Australian) had stopped. Then their health plans lapsed — an unpaid dental claim of $US4400 forced one worker to bankruptcy. To add insult to injury, Social Security taxes had not been paid since 2007 — and the employees themselves were liable for that. That's taxes on work for which they were not paid.
All of this for a job making games like Jackass: The Game and Alvin and the Chipmunks. Sensory Sweep was mostly known for fast work on handheld ports of movie adaptations. As to why someone would continue to work for such a company, a Sensory Sweep employee said it best to Kotaku in 2009.
"People like to say I work for a video game company. It's very important to them. It's so important, they'll sacrifice their lives, their houses, their cars. We had a few threats of divorce come out of this. It's because they want to make games and that's all they want to do."
It helps that Utah is a backwater in games development, and that designers who have bought homes, have spouses in work and children in school are not exactly mobile. Rushton exploited this labour market.
"We thought that Mr Rushton was trying to continue his business on the backs of his employees," said a wage-claim manager at the Utah Labour Commission.
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