Inside the Low-Paying Cheezburger Empire

Ben Huh's media startup is focused on LOLcats and other internet animal memes. Things are less cute behind the scenes, where underpaid and overworked humans lurk, according to several company veterans who answered our recent request for information.

Cheezburger Network might be the internet's largest "meme aggregator," according to Wired, with upwards of $4 million per year gleaned from other people's pet pictures, supplied to the company for free. But that doesn't mean the 30 or so employees share fairly in the bounty; as we reported last week, Huh has blogged about proudly offering jobs at Seattle's minimum wage of $8.55 or slightly higher, at $10.

Those low wages permeate the company, insiders and their associates tell us, with some former workers also describing worker misclassification unpaid overtime.

On the bright side, it sounds like people have fun with their co-workers, as even some detractors tell us, and one employee wrote in to say his experience at Cheezburger Network beat the pants off her/his (other?) minimum wage jobs — not exactly a high bar, but, given the state of the economy, a practical one.

After hearing from seven different people, most of them current or former employees or contractors of Huh's, we've broken their comments down into a few categories below (some sources have multiple quotes). We've also included a company-wide memo Huh sent to his staff about our original post, saying he wanted to "solve" any labor issues.

Hey Huh: If you're feeling reformist, we know another Web publisher who might be able to lend you some guidance.

Pay and overtime
Former worker:

In 2009 I made less than $15,000 and would have had to pay a couple hundred dollars to the IRS if it weren't for a friend who is a crafty accountant/tax preparer.

Current worker:

I'm paid hourly, but am encouraged to never bill more than 30 hours a week, although I routinely work 40 to 45 hours. If I could find a place that would pay me fairly, I would do it .. but right now, you take the work you can find.

Yet another tipster said Cheezburger Network expects staff and/or contractors to work "extensive hours without overtime pay," a statement we quoted in our last post.

Work status
Former worker:

Huh's practice of paying "contract employees" is borderline illegal and I'd love to nail his ass to the wall for it. The work that he has his employees doesn't fall under the qualifications listed on WA state's contract employee Web page.

Another former worker:

I can confirm you're right [with statements in prior post]. Not only was the pay slightly higher than minimum (some positions were outsourced to another country altogether[...]), but he's skating a fine line between employees and contractors—we did have regular assignments, we did have our own desks, and working from home wasn't acceptable—in short, most of the things that would cause the IRS to classify one as a regular employee. But in a crap economy, who's going to report this?

Office culture

He is shrewd and cheap and I recommend staying away from Cheezburger HQ if you value your sanity and pocket book... The co-workers at Cheezburger are fun, cool people, but Huh and his wife (who is the HR Manager), have a stifling presence in the office and aren't shy about letting you know whether or not you're in good or poor favor with them.

Someone else:

We are expected to be available at all hours, work off the clock and receive very few benefits.

Didn't work for the company:

I know someone who interviewed for one of their open jobs. Minimum wage, no benefits, a surprisingly hostile interview that asked what the applicant's "biggest fail" was without also asking them to describe their career successes, might have been a cute reference to failblog but came off like a retail job "personality" test question. The office was a bunch of workers crammed together at long high school cafeteria-looking tables, not even a cubefarm's worth of personal space.

Happy camper enjoys coworkers, lack of feces and punching:

1. Do I feel exploited, no; 2. Do I work a lot, yes... I love my job, I like coming in to work and I love the people I work with.... Reading through the Gawker article didn't really anger me; I would describe my response as irritated. The irritation stemmed from the over-inflated sense of entitlement the spy had. I worked crappy retail cause I needed to pay rent and my ever expanding bar tabs, those jobs paid worse, had more hazard and conflict and caused a sense of self loathing that will probably never go away (I imagine it's a similar sensation with herpes)..... Most of my previous work experience was spent drifting from one retail job to then next, trying to avoid cleaning up other peoples feces, getting punched by the elderly and sworn at by children.

Hypocrisy (alleged!)

Huh is also stingey about giving his employees learning opportunities. Even when there were relevant conferences in the city of Seattle, Huh wouldn't send his employees, however, he wasn't shy about bragging to the office that he was flying to San Fran, LA, or New York for the day to do an interview or meet with an investor. If you really want to talk about a slap in the face, you should ask Huh how much money he spent on booze for Fail Blog fans at the FOWA meet-up in London in 2008 and the Fail Blog night in Seattle later that year. Combined, he probably spent more on those parties than what one of his contract employees makes in 6 months.

Huh response

The email Huh sent to staff:

Inside the Low-Paying Cheezburger Empire

You can also read the CEO's comments in this contentious TechFlash thread from February. In it, Huh says he has lost (as of February) only four employees out of 30 in the past two years, counting both voluntary and involuntary departures. That's not bad considering how little Huh pays at least some of his workers, but it remains to be seen if he'll fare so well when the unemployment rate falls significantly from the present 10 percent. Some excerpts:

Inside the Low-Paying Cheezburger Empire

Inside the Low-Paying Cheezburger Empire

Inside the Low-Paying Cheezburger Empire

(Top picture: Huh and his wife Emily, who also works at the company. Getty Images)