EASTHAM — The owner of Willy’s Gym is appealing a state order to pay fines and restitution for various wage law violations, while friends of the gym’s late tennis pro Joe Abbott vow to continue their boycott of the gym until the money owed to his widow is paid.
In August, the state attorney general’s office ordered Barbara Niggel to pay $101,466 for failing to furnish accurate payroll records, for misclassifying one or more employees as independent contractors, for violating the earned sick time law, for failing to keep sick time records, and failing to offer sick time to one or more employees.
Attorney General Maura Healey also ordered Niggel to make restitution to two employees owed wages. She owed Abbott $17,741.43, according to the attorney general’s citation. Abbott, 63, died on Willy’s tennis courts on Aug. 7, 2019, of a heart attack while teaching classes. He had been moving heavy bags of construction material to redo the outdoor courts.
“My husband worked hard,” said Francine Abbott of South Dennis, his widow. “He worked some long days and he went above and beyond.”
Only upon his death did Francine discover that her husband was not paid for all his work. The Abbott case is similar to other complaints filed against Niggel, who has owned gyms in Eastham and Orleans since the 1980s. There have been 26 cases filed against Niggel in Orleans small claims court by vendors, employees, and contractors.
When Abbott’s tennis students heard that his widow was owed wages, they organized a fund-raising effort and began a public campaign to get Niggel to pay Francine Abbott the outstanding sum.
Sixty people have signed a pledge not to use the gym, even for tennis tournaments, said David Bernstein, one of the regular players. On Aug. 7, about 30 people held signs outside Willy’s to protest Niggel’s continued resistance to paying up.
Abbott’s friends have gone so far as to write letters to GreenLake Asset Management LLC, in South Pasadena, Calif., which holds a $4.6 million mortgage on Niggel’s property. Their intention was to get GreenLake involved out of self-interest.
“It would be a win-win,” Bernstein said. “Francine would be paid and Niggel could gain some income from people returning to use her gym and tennis courts.”
That strategy has not worked yet, though Paul Diamond, GreenLake’s chief operating officer, did write a note back to Bernstein, stating, “Please understand that as a lender, we do not control or have a voice in the operation of the business. We have heard from several people who speak with great admiration and respect for Mr. Abbott, he surely must have been a wonderful person.”
According to the mortgage document held by GreenLake Asset Management, Niggel was supposed to repay the entire $4.6 million loan on Sept. 30. It’s unknown if she has. No new documents have been recorded at the Barnstable County Registry of Deeds that indicate either a payoff or a refinancing, Bernstein said.
“We are all holding our breath and wondering what is going to happen next,” Bernstein said.
Paul Diamond of GreenLake did not respond to messages from the Independent, and Niggel refused to comment.
Niggel has filed an appeal of the attorney general’s findings. Attorney Bruce Bierhans will represent Francine Abbott in the appeal before the Div. of Administrative Law Appeals. No hearing date has been scheduled yet, according to a spokesman for the division. The process could take a year or more, said Francine Abbott, adding, “All I can do is keep my faith.”