EASTHAM — Barbara Niggel, the owner of Willy’s World Wellness & Conference Center, has been fined $101,466 by the state attorney general’s office for a litany of labor law violations.
Attorney General Maura Healey’s Aug. 21 action came a year after Joe Abbott, the gym’s tennis pro, died on the job of a heart attack, a tragedy that prompted his longtime students and friends to stage a public protest against Niggel, who has for years been accused of repeatedly failing to pay her employees, contractors, and vendors.
“It’s really sad, and it’s really gratifying,” said Ann Sigsbee, one of Abbott’s students, of the state’s ruling. “The outcry and pouring in of information from the community helped the attorney general seal the deal. The attorney general has said as much.”
The fines, which are civil, not criminal, citations, are mostly to be paid to the state. But Niggel must give $18,436 to two employees as restitution for failing to make timely payment of wages from December 2018 to September 2019, according to the citation.
Sigsbee said the bulk of that amount, $17,741, will go to Joe Abbott’s widow, Francine Abbott, of South Dennis. Another employee will get $695.
Niggel, who has owned gyms since the 1980s in Orleans and Eastham, declined to comment.
Abbott, 63, died on Aug. 7, 2019, while teaching classes and moving heavy bags of material to refurbish the outdoor tennis courts at the Eastham gym. After his death, his widow discovered that her husband had not been paid for about $20,000 of work, Francine Abbott told the Independent in March.
Devoted students of the highly regarded tennis pro refused to go back to Willy’s. About 60 people have signed a letter to Niggel stating they won’t return until she pays Francine.
It’s not clear if public attention to the dispute launched the attorney general’s action, but it certainly helped, Sigsbee said.
The attorney general’s office found that Niggel failed to keep records of sick time earned, failed to make timely payment of wages, failed to furnish accurate records to the attorney general, misclassified workers as independent contractors, and violated the earned sick time law, according to Margaret Quackenbush, a spokesperson for Healey’s office.
Sigsbee wondered if this latest finding will make a difference in Niggel’s behavior and the gym’s future. Niggel has had a Houdini-like resilience for years, having extricated herself and her business time and again from accusations and enforcement actions.
In 2014 Niggel was indicted for failing to pay unemployment tax and had to pay the state $177,081 in restitution. In 2015, the electric company Eversource shut off her power because of a large unpaid bill. In 2018, the ceiling of the gym’s saltwater pool partially collapsed into the pool due to extreme moisture buildup and poor ventilation, according to the town building inspector’s report.
She recently reopened the gym after it was closed by the Eastham building inspector, who found the gym violated fire codes, building codes, and electrical codes. Though her sprinkler system no longer worked, she hosted a large after-hours party in the gym in December 2019. When Eastham’s fire chief and the town administrator saw video of the party, circulated on social media, they shut down the gym and required the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems to be redone, along with the electrical and fire suppression systems.
Those who signed the letter of protest to Niggel say they won’t actually go back to being customers at Willy’s until Francine has the cash in hand, Sigsbee said.
“It’s not over yet,” she added. “Barbara can appeal.”