Artists Allege ‘Indentured Servant’ Treatment at Former Ghost Town

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A dog stands on a country road lined with rustic cabins.
Artists came to the rural resort Pulga for flexible work and space to create. Four of them say they were left unpaid, desperate and far from home. (Zoe Clisham)

Ricky Ybarra was looking for a fresh start. He’d been laid off and ended a long-term relationship, and needed a new place to live. In June, after a call with Betsy Ann Cowley, he thought his luck might turn around. Cowley offered the 40-year-old chef work on her property, a former ghost town in the Sierra Nevada called Pulga.

A mining settlement established in 1906 near Chico, Pulga is located at the edge of the Plumas National Forest in rural Butte County — the site of the deadly 2018 Camp Fire. With the help of her stepfather, Cowley, 35, acquired the 64-acre former town in 2015, and began running it as a rustic resort, renting 11 cabins on Airbnb and hosting weddings, corporate retreats and events.

Ybarra says Cowley verbally offered him — and, later, his girlfriend, sous-chef Sosha Young — cooking gigs for her summer events. As musicians, the two found Cowley’s vision of an intentional community attractive. Pulga had a reputation as a refuge for creatives: Cowley was once a resident of Oakland’s Fifth Avenue Marina artist enclave, and a glowing Bust Magazine profile portrayed her as an eccentric frontierswoman running a “feminist haven” orbited by writers and architects. Young and Ybarra were sold.

A woman with short hair in a patterned sweater looks to the right with her palm on her cheek
Betsy Ann Cowley, owner of the Town of Pulga, pictured here in 2018, shortly after the Camp Fire. (Karl Mondon/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

Shortly after their arrival, however, the two say they found something more sinister. As they tell it, Cowley began assigning additional work without pay, and invaded their privacy in ways that made them feel violated. After they left Pulga in August, Young and Ybarra both filed separate wage claims with the California Labor Commissioner’s Office.

“She essentially began treating us like her personal indentured servants, so we left without payment,” Young, 31, wrote in her complaint to the state, which she shared with KQED.

KQED spoke with six people who worked in Pulga between 2019 and 2022, most of whom are artists from the Bay Area. In interviews, several accused Cowley of wage theft, and said they’re still dealing with setbacks after their time in Pulga.

Taken together, their accounts demonstrate the lengths to which artists will go for opportunity and income, particularly during the pandemic. The workers claim that Cowley enticed them with flexible jobs, access to nature and space to create, but then withheld pay, leaving them broke, desperate and, in some cases, fearing for their safety.

A young woman in a black apron plates food at a long wooden table adjacent to a dirt road in rural California
Sosha Young (right) worked as a chef for Betsy Cowley at her resort, Pulga, in the summer of 2022. She's one of four workers accusing Cowley of wage theft and other labor violations. (Courtesy Sosha Young)

In a series of interviews, emails and text message exchanges with KQED, Cowley denied nearly every allegation made by her former workers, and frequently changed the subject by accusing them of damaging property or violating rules.

Amid a string of sometimes erratic communications, Cowley emailed text message screenshots to KQED in which her friend appeared to threaten one of the sources in this story. (“I’m gonna make their lives hell ... I just enjoy making people cry,” the text read.) She also claimed the Labor Commissioner’s Office told her “there is nothing there” regarding the wage disputes. But according to a department spokesperson, the cases are pending review.

“She just counts on people going, ‘I don’t want to lose this opportunity,’ that’s why they’ll do whatever for her,” says Ybarra. “But we just said, ‘We quit.’ She’s like, ‘No, that’s not how this game is played. I accuse you of some dumb shit, you grovel and you do the thing for me,’ and then it goes on and on. And we didn’t play that game with her.”

‘We were on eggshells’

In June, Cowley hired Ybarra and Young to cook for her summer events at a rate of $200 per day, the two say. According to their account, she also offered a cabin and access to utility vehicles, and a space to practice and record music in their spare time. The couple says they trusted Cowley because, at the time, she was married to Ybarra’s former boss at Oakland’s Starline Social Club, Adam Hatch. (Hatch, who recently stepped down as a managing owner of Starline, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Soon after they cooked for an event in late June, however, Cowley began assigning Young and Ybarra additional work. They showed KQED screenshots of text messages and a shared Notes app to-do list where Cowley and Hatch delegated them to clean cabins, take out garbage and take care of animals. Ybarra and Young kept logs of their hours and completed tasks, reviewed by KQED. In an estimate to the labor board, they claimed hundreds of unpaid hours beyond their cooking shifts from late June to early August. They say that Cowley promised to pay the couple for their additional work, but repeatedly stalled. Eventually, Young and Ybarra gave up and left Pulga.

The two chefs say they had grown tired of tiptoeing around Cowley’s angry, erratic moods. Like other sources KQED spoke with, Young and Ybarra had given up their housing back in the Bay Area, and they feared that advocating for themselves could leave them homeless and jobless, stranded hours from home. Pulga is an isolated mountain community more than a 30-minute drive from the nearest town, with limited cell service.

“I was afraid — she has guns,” Young says. “We felt like we were on eggshells.”

Guns are common in rural Northern California, and Cowley says she’s never used hers to hurt anyone. “I have guns out here in the middle of the national forest,” Cowley says. “Has it ever been a threat to anything beyond livestock? No.”

A man and woman pose on a river bank, and the woman carries a guitar case.
Sosha Young (left) and Ricky Ybarra (right) are chefs and musicians currently pursuing wage claims against Betsy Cowley of Pulga. (Sosha Young)

Young and Ybarra say it was common for Cowley to cross personal boundaries. Young recalls an instance when Cowley made her feel “extremely uncomfortable” by walking in on her naked in the shower and looking at her for around a minute while carrying on a conversation.

They say there was another incident late at night, after a discussion about money, when Cowley entered the couple’s cabin while they were in bed and partially undressed. Young and Ybarra say Cowley “threw” a $50 bill at them and asked if they were “good” for the unpaid wages. They felt humiliated and degraded.

In an interview, Cowley denied Young and Ybarra’s claims about the shower and cabin incidents.

Cowley says that the additional jobs she assigned Young and Ybarra were for a work trade for their cabin, which she values at $550 a month. (Young and Ybarra say Cowley never gave them a straight answer about how much the cabin rent was.) Cowley also says that she didn’t want Ybarra and Young to move in for the summer, and that she asked them to leave — a claim the couple denies. “And even on top of that, I allowed them to set up a recording studio,” Cowley says. “I overprovided and extended myself to people that I cared for and wanted to help. And it was a constant struggle with those two.”

According to California law, if an employer requires workers to live on a worksite, they must obtain workers’ written consent to deduct meals and lodging from their paychecks — something Young and Ybarra say Cowley did not do.

In Pulga, business transactions were often handshake deals. But attorney Kim Ouillette of the nonprofit organization Legal Aid at Work says that workers can assert their rights even without a written contract.

“There’s all kinds of industries where it’s fairly common for people not to have a written work contract because an employer says, ‘Here’s the rate, here’s the job,’ and they get hired to work,” says Ouillette. But, she adds, “they still have the same rights to receive minimum wage, to receive overtime — all of that.”

The Loft House in Pulga in 2018. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Turning Pulga into an arts destination

Young and Ybarra are not the first workers to accuse Cowley of wage theft. In August 2021, architect Danny Wills, 35, was looking for a scenic location to host arts events and workshops. He got in touch with Cowley, and she and Hatch emailed him a job description and a salary offer of $1,400 per month for four months of work. According to emails reviewed by KQED, Cowley recruited Wills not just as help, but as someone who could expand Pulga’s impact as an arts destination with a residency program, events and educational workshops.

In September 2021, Wills relocated to Pulga from Ohio. Over the next three months, he served as Pulga’s financial manager. He interfaced with the county about building permits, managed Pulga’s Airbnb listings and developed a business plan for the enterprise. According to his work logs, shared with KQED, he also took care of animals, deep-cleaned cabins, dug trenches and laid pipes.

“I’d wake up every day in the freezing pitch black before the sun came up. And then I’d go to sleep late at night. And between those two moments, I [was] working nonstop,” Wills says of his experience.

Wills says Cowley never paid him his salary. Looking back, he says he stayed with the hope of shaping the town into an arts destination. “From an outsider’s perspective, it’s a really amazing place. Like the fact that this is a 150-year-old railroad and mining town turned into this artist village where you can play music as long as you want into the night,” he says. “There’s a certain mystical kind of magic to that.”

Wills eventually became frustrated and returned home to Ohio. To recoup his pay, he attempted to file a mechanic’s lien on Cowley’s property. But Wills says that Cowley became contentious when he sent her a certified letter with a preliminary notice. He was daunted by the prospect of fighting a legal battle, especially from eight states away, and ultimately didn’t file the lien with Butte County.

“I was like, ‘OK, I can’t mentally go through this right now ... I just want to put this behind me and move on,” he says.

In an interview, Cowley said she “absolutely” paid Wills for all three months. To support her claim, she sent KQED a screenshot of a PayPal transaction with the date cropped out. Wills says this payment occurred in September 2021, at the start of his time in Pulga, and covered work expenses related to the property, not his salary. He showed KQED additional PayPal requests to Cowley for his salary, which she canceled on the platform, according to documents he shared.

Friend or worker?

Zoe Clisham, 35, arrived in Pulga in November 2021, shortly after Wills left. COVID-19 had wreaked havoc on the hospitality industry, and the bar manager of 10 years yearned for stability. She knew Cowley through mutual friends, and reached out to see if she needed help on her property. Clisham says that Cowley verbally offered her a caretaker position, and then later told her that she’d need Clisham’s help with her events, promising to pay her.

“When I first met people on the property, they were like, ‘Oh, are you the new indentured servant?’” Clisham says. “And then everybody would chuckle.”

Two bridges span a river, surrounded by trees and mountains
A Union Pacific rail line on the Pulga Bridge just outside the Town of Pulga in Butte County. (Frank Schulenburg/CC 4.0)

According to Clisham, the two women had an understanding that Cowley would pay Clisham an undetermined stipend for daily tasks such as caring for animals, cleaning cabins and making repairs. Cowley didn’t assign shifts, but if Clisham wasn’t busy between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m., Cowley would start an argument with her, Clisham says. She found it difficult to advocate for herself: She had already given up her apartment in Oakland and had nowhere else to go.

“How relentless it was was the worst part. It was the fatigue of just every day dealing with a level-10 situation,” says Clisham. “I’m her therapist, personal assistant, maid, groundskeeper. I did everything.”

Cowley paints a different picture. She says that Clisham never worked for her at all, and that she was letting her stay in Pulga as a friend because Clisham wanted to learn about animal husbandry. Indeed, while in Pulga, Clisham purchased six goats that she kept on Cowley’s property — she was interested in fiber arts. After she got the goats, Clisham says, Cowley backtracked on her offer to pay.

“There was never a work-trade agreement. She was here solely as who I thought was a new friend,” Cowley says.

Others with knowledge of the situation dispute Cowley’s characterization. Wills says that before he left Pulga, Cowley spoke about Clisham as a new worker who’d soon arrive to help him. Kevin Pennick, whom Clisham was dating at the time, visited Clisham in Pulga. Pennick says he often saw Clisham wake up early in the morning to take care of Cowley’s livestock and clean cabins, and that he perceived Cowley to be Clisham’s boss.

“That was the whole reason she was there, to work,” Pennick says. “It wasn’t a friendly invitation.”

Clisham says that a few weeks into her stay, her relationship with Cowley deteriorated. In text messages shared with KQED, Clisham regularly vented to Pennick about Cowley’s treatment of her, and planned her departure in secret. “I’m scared to be alone with her out here,” she wrote in a text message to Pennick in January 2022, shortly before she left for good.

Cowley repairs a waterline ruptured by the fire.
Betsy Cowley repairs a waterline ruptured by the Camp Fire in 2018. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Life after Pulga

The workers interviewed for this story say they’ve dealt with a multitude of financial, emotional and mental-health setbacks after leaving Pulga. Clisham went to Oregon to stay with her aunt, and still hasn’t gotten back on her feet. “I was doing pretty well financially and professionally before. And now I’m back to working a minimum wage part-time job and struggling to cover rent,” she says.

Wills says it’s been hard for him to move on from feeling exploited. “It’s the one thing I kind of keep in the back and don’t want to deal with or confront,” he says.

Young and Ybarra’s lives were derailed for months: after leaving Pulga in a car damaged from the wear-and-tear of the job, they crashed with Young’s mother in a housing facility for low-income seniors. In September, Young and Ybarra both filed complaints with the California Labor Commissioner’s Office. The Department of Industrial Relations told KQED that their claims are in the queue to be reviewed by a deputy labor commissioner. They will most likely be called to a settlement conference with Cowley.

Cowley continues to deny Young and Ybarra’s allegations. “I tend to deal with this stuff sometimes. The handshake deals don’t tend to work with city people [like] they do out here,” she says.

Young and Ybarra say they decided to speak out about Pulga to warn other workers.

“When she came back that last weekend [we were there], she brought two people that seemed like acquaintances that she was about to set up as caretakers of the town,” Young says. “And we were like, ‘Holy shit ... Looks like two new chumps are showing up for the next two or three free months of work for Betsy.’”

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