Ex-Lightfleet workers partially repaid

More claims seeking unpaid wages possible; Camas firm seeks investors

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

Washington’s Department of Labor and Industries has collected $105,477 from Lightfleet Corp. of Camas, allowing the state to deliver partial payments to seven former Lightfleet employees for unpaid wages dating back to 2008.

But Lightfleet, which is trying to attract new investment to its beamed-light method of connecting computer processors, still owes $112,113 on the unpaid wage claims, plus interest, penalties, and fees, the state agency said. That amount is growing, with interest that accrues at 1 percent per month, said L&I spokeswoman Elaine Fischer. The state has received one new claim, which is now under review, and queries from other former Lightfleet employees about how to file claims, she said.

Lightfleet Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Peers said the company still has 18 employees — himself included — who are receiving benefits but no pay. The company owes money to those workers and lesser amounts to many past employees who have not filed claims with the state, he said. At its peak, he said, Lightfleet had 53 employees.

Despite these daunting challenges, Peers said in an interview that he and other employees are trying to achieve market success with a technology that won a top Wall Street Journal award last year for innovation in computing systems. “We have several discussions going on with several major potential investors,” he said. “We are determined to get this done.”

Fischer said it’s rare for the state to recover such a large amount of money from a company for unpaid wages. Peers said the money came from a Lightfleet shareholder, who provided a lump sum payment for the wage settlement. But as the wage bill keeps going up, Peers said the company will be forced to consider its priorities for how it uses any additional investment funding.

“How much goes to yesterday,” he asked, “and how much goes to tomorrow?”

Former Lightfleet hardware test engineer James Chapin said he was relieved to receive some of his wages earlier this month. Now a Portland State University student, Chapin filed a claim for $17,000 in back wages, and with interest the amount he was owed had grown to $22,000 before he received his partial payment.

“I’m surprised,” said Chapin, who lives in Portland with his wife and two children. “I personally thought the money was just lost, that I’d become an unwilling investor in Lightfleet.”

He said he has repaid a loan from his mother but has other unpaid debts, including medical bills for his wife. “I guess Lightfleet is becoming a good investment,” Chapin mused.

That’s true only if the company is able to make full payment to Chapin and other employees who filed claims with the state. Eugene Fifield of Sherwood, Ore., a former employee who said he’d received about one-third of the amount owed, said he still hopes for the best for Lightfleet. He filed for $21,875 in unpaid wages, before any added interest.

“If they’re successful and have money to pay me, that would be the best scenario,” said Fifield, now a part-time instructor in electronics engineering technology at Portland Community College. But, he said, “time marches on, and there’s a window of opportunity.”

Peers believes that window hasn’t closed, and he sees his company’s technology as becoming the world standard for computer connectivity — another Cisco Systems, he said, referencing a Silicon Valley computer networking powerhouse.

“With seven patents issued, one more allowed, and 12 more in process, Lightfleet remains confident that the current pain will ultimately be well rewarded,” Peers said by email. “After all, continuous computer connectivity is the inevitable next step. Lightfleet has it working, proving that it is smaller, more efficient, and uses less power.”

In 2008 the company was close to receiving a large investment from Merrill Lynch and the New York Stock Exchange, which were interested in speeding trade transactions, Peers told The Columbian last year. The financial sector meltdown in September of that year, and the bank’s collapse and eventual sale to Bank of America, prevented the transaction from going through, Peers said . The NYSE also backed out of a deal.

In March 2009, Microsoft Research placed an order for Lightfleet’s prototype Direct Broadcast Optical Interconnect machine to test the technology, but Peers said that Lightfleet has not secured any follow-up orders from the software giant.

Peers appears to be patient. “Once you get that first domino to fall, everything else falls into place,” he said.

How long is Peers willing to wait for that first domino to fall?”

“As long as it takes,” he said.