Cameron Sparkman began cooking meals for cadets at Fort Knox, Kentucky’s summer training program when he was 19.
The job had its perks, he told Army Times by phone. He made good money, and his coworkers respected him. This year, at 22, he earned the title of sous chef, elevating him to a position of seniority at odds with his age. Having spent most of his life along the Gulf Coast, the Mississippi native relished the opportunity to meet people from other states and countries.
Thousands of prospective Army officers congregate at Fort Knox every summer for Cadet Summer Training (CST), a month’s worth of classes and field exercises. This year’s training started smoothly, Sparkman remembered. He started work on May 6. The base’s dining facilities, or DFACs, then managed by the contractor Next Level Relief LLC, began churning out meals soon after. Besides a shortage of work outfits, “we were good,” Sparkman recalled. Food was prepped. Soldiers were fed. Spirits were high.
Then, he said, the paychecks stopped.
Next Level Relief promised to pay its workers every Friday, according to copies of employee contracts shared with Army Times by former workers. For reasons still unclear to Sparkman, he says he never received a check on Friday, June 2. He soon learned that hundreds of his colleagues hadn’t received payments that day either.
From there, things “rapidly declined,” he said. No checks arrived on June 9 or June 23, according to employee testimonies and legal claims provided to Army Times. Some employees were paid on June 16 and June 30, but those who were paid told Army Times that they only received a portion of what they were owed.
Frustrated workers stopped showing up for their shifts. Sparkman estimates he worked an average of 13 hours a day between June 11 and July 1 to help keep the understaffed DFACs running. Simmering anger and exhaustion boiled over during a peaceful yet boisterous employee walkout on June 26. Video of the demonstration generated a flurry of attention online. Days later, Next Level Relief lost its contract.
Sparkman is now one of more than 100 current and former Fort Knox dining workers suing Next Level Relief over unpaid wages. The lawsuit, and the grievances that produced it, raised familiar yet unresolved concerns about the corporations hired to meet soldiers’ basic needs; how they are chosen; how their workers are treated; and how the military can address alleged mismanagement or misconduct.
Filed on July 18 in the Western District of Kentucky, the suit accuses the contractor and two of its executives of violating provisions of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and Kentucky’s Wages and Hours Act.
“Defendants paid some employees late, paid some employees only a portion of the amount that they were owed (including not paying for all overtime worked), and paid some employees simply nothing,” it claimed. As of Wednesday morning, 111 Next Level Relief workers have signed on as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Next Level Relief president and defendant Brandon Cain denounced the case as “baseless” and “improper” in a statement to Army Times. Cain declined to answer specific questions about the allegations against his company “because of ongoing litigation.”
In March, the Army awarded the Wisconsin-based firm a $24 million contract to provide full food services for CST until 2028. Cain and his partner and co-defendant Justin Bowie established Next Level Relief just a year earlier, according to the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions.
Several former Next Level Relief employees provided detailed retellings of the confusion, stress, and exasperation that pervaded the company’s ranks during its second month in charge of CST dining services.
Some fell behind on their rent and credit card bills, Mark-Anthony Carter, an assistant project manager for Next Level Relief who helped oversee the company’s roughly 270 dining workers, told Army Times. Sparkman found himself reluctantly borrowing money from colleagues to cover basic expenses. Some struggled to pay for meals, relying on the charity of their coworkers to make ends meet. Carter recalls pooling money to help one colleague pay for her heart medication.
Most DFAC employees came from out of state and spent the summer in local hotels paid for by Next Level Relief (an accommodation outlined in employee contracts). By early June, Carter and his peers began receiving word that employees were being locked out of their rooms because the company had stopped paying hotel fees.
What exactly caused these payment issues remains unclear. The lawsuit claims Next Level Relief executives masqueraded the company’s financial troubles with “false reasons for not paying employees,” including accounting errors, blocked deposits, and a shift to a biweekly payment schedule.
External pressures and workplace tensions rose in tandem. One former Next Level Relief employee who wished to remain anonymous because they still work at Fort Knox described the staff shortages triggered by the payment problems as “frequent and random.” Carter says he was once forced to staff a Cadre DFAC typically manned by around 100 workers with just 19 employees during the second week of June.
Several workers said Fort Knox officials were aware of the staffing issues plaguing the base’s DFACs.
“On the ground, there was no help,” Sparkman said. “But they saw that we were understaffed.”
U.S. Army Cadet Command, which manages CST, did not say explicitly whether or not it was aware of worker shortages in cadet and cadre DFACs.
Even if it had been, the command said federal regulations limited its ability to get involved.
“According to federal law, U.S. Army Cadet Command was not authorized to intervene in employee-contractor issues,” said Richard Patterson, a spokesperson for U.S. Army Cadet Command.
Alan Chvotkin, a government contracting attorney at Centre Law and Consulting, corroborated USACC’s position.
“While the base commander or training lead doesn’t have any direct responsibility or authority, they can certainly be in touch with the prime contractor and say ‘WTF? Guys are walking off the job. My soldiers aren’t getting fed. What’s going on?’” he told Army Times.
The Army’s Mission and Installation Contracting Command (MICC), the body charged with ensuring that contractors fulfill their obligations, said “the government issued a non-conformance report notifying Next Level Relief that it was not in compliance with the contract.” It did not specify when the report was issued, what it stipulated, or what prompted its issuance.
Chvotkin described non-conformance reports as “the equivalent of a warning ticket,” designed to highlight contract infractions and encourage reforms.
“Here are some facts that we have. You tell me what facts you have to show that you are in compliance, you are making the payments, you are delivering the services according to what the contract requires,” Chvotkin said.
Though the Army reserves the right to terminate a contract if it feels a company is not performing its duties (dubbed a “termination for default”), it wields limited authority to investigate malfeasance, Chvotkin added.
A MICC spokesperson told Army Times that the company “did not perform contracted services for morning and dinner meals at five dining facilities on June 30, 2023, and morning meals at four dining facilities on July 1, 2023.” These “performance failures,” coupled with “the contractor’s inability to provide adequate assurances for future performance,” prompted the Army to scuttle its multimillion-dollar deal with Next Level Relief on July 1.
MICC officials did not comment on earlier reports of staffing shortages or missed paydays, stating that “pay concerns as well as any other labor-employment matters are strictly between Next Level Relief and its employees.”
The power and purview to investigate compensation issues is vested in the Department of Labor, but limited manpower and high case volume can drag out cases for months, Chvotkin explained. Besides the class-action suit, former Next Level Relief employees filed a complaint with the department’s Wage and Hour Division July 3 to recuperate what they claim they are due.
Meanwhile, many CST dining workers were subsumed by the new contractors that took Next Level Relief’s place. Sparkman turned down an offer to return to the DFACs and went home. He’s now back in Mississippi, working odd jobs to support himself and his mother. He says Next Level Relief still owes him around $3,000.
“I wouldn’t say every contractor is bad or every contractor is good,” he reflected. “You have to pick your poison.”
Jaime Moore-Carrillo is an editorial fellow for Military Times and Defense News. A Boston native, Jaime graduated with degrees in international affairs, history, and Arabic from Georgetown University, where he served as a senior editor for the school's student-run paper, The Hoya.