The Human Cost of Canvassing
Part 2 of a series on Oregon’s initiative and referendum process
Robert Mueller is all smiles. He talks with great optimism about the future: he has an upcoming job interview, he loves his four year old daughter, and his phone still has four more days of service. Listening to him talk, you might not catch that, well, his phone has four more days of service. Or that, after working professionally as a custom home theater installer in Eugene, the recession hit his family really hard. He lost his house, he is living out of his car, and he struggles to support his little girl.
Robert was understandably excited to get a job at Democracy Resources. While a home theatre installer by trade, he has plenty of campaigning experience. He had already petitioned on behalf of numerous campaigns, including Oregon’s indoor smoking ban and the 1996 push for medical marijuana legalization. He knew this was a job he could do—and do well.
After working at Democracy Resources for two days, Robert was fired.
On Mother’s Day. He was assigned to work at the Eugene downtown bus stop. For hours Robert did his best. But, as photos he took demonstrate, there was not (nor is there normally) anyone at the downtown bus stop on Mother’s Day. After not reaching his 75-signature-a-day quota, Robert was canned.
“It was Sasquatch Brewfest the night before and Mother’s Day that morning. Even Voodoo Doughnuts was dead, that’s how dead downtown was. None of the people on my crew made quota,” Robert said. “And only ten people out of all twenty five employees that worked that day made quota. And I wasn’t even on the schedule that day! They called me and asked me to come in—”
—Robert emphasized this part—
“—I came in as a favor to them. And apparently, they fired me to return that favor.”
Robert’s story is unfortunately not unique. He is one of several employees speaking out against perceived unfair and demeaning treatment at the Eugene office of Democracy Resources. In this article, EDN looks into what work looks like for the average signature gatherer.
What we discovered, unsurprisingly, was this job is not a walk in the park. But what was surprising were the stories we heard about bait-and-switch tactics used in the hiring process, the intense pressure placed on employees, and the difficulties some allegedly face when trying to get paid.
The recession puts its heavy boot on American workers
In 2008, Americans watched in slow-motion as the American dream began to resemble something more like a horror story. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the recession
“began with the bursting of an eight trillion dollar housing bubble. The resulting loss of wealth led to sharp cutbacks in consumer spending. This loss of consumption, combined with the financial market chaos triggered by the bursting of the bubble, also led to a collapse in business investment. As consumer spending and business investment dried up, massive job loss followed. ”
The stock market tanked, the housing bubble popped, and hundreds of thousands of jobs disappeared. The economy ground to such a halt that economists deemed the moment — a moment we still feel today — the Great Recession.
People say desperate times call for desperate measures. No one really goes into what those measures are. The saying stops there. But we see the results: people switching careers, going back to school, or picking up second or third jobs to support their families and have a place to live. Often, though, we do not hear the other story—that desperate times also create the opportunity to take advantage of desperate people.
According to employees of Democracy Resources, that is exactly what their Eugene employer does.
“It is not ethical”
“14/hr Canvassing for November 2012 ballot!” When Karen Freeman, a small business owner in Eugene, first saw this ad on the Eugene Craigslist, she was excited.
“I thought, ‘Good, someone is paying a decent amount for work, instead of $10 for experience and a college degree. And part-time is perfect. They [gave] the impression we could choose the numbers of hours we worked. I figured 20 is what I needed.” Karen hoped to get a supplemental part-time job.
The ad stated:
“$14/hr Canvassing for November 2012 ballot! (Eugene, OR). Democracy Resources is hiring employees with positive and outgoing attitudes. Full- and part-time positions available…Compensation: $14.00 per hour.”
At $14 per hour, and full and part time positions available, it almost seems too good to be true.
“Taking time to go to the interview,” Karen said, “I was disappointed when I found out the position did not pay as described on the ad.”
Karen discovered discrepancies in the presented information. Employees are not paid $14 an hour as the ad states (twice). Employees are paid $10 per hour, unless they work over 30 hours a week. Only then do they get a “bonus” of an extra $4 an hour. And there are only two working options: work three days a week or work five days a week. So unless you are willing to work full-time (including a weekend day), you are not eligible to get the wage advertised not only on Craigslist but many other websites.
As a business owner herself, Karen was very blunt about this discrepancy: “Of course it is not ethical.” Not only that, but as Karen explained, “My time is valuable, and I feel they not only wasted my time, but a lot of paperwork by having everyone fill out paperwork when they knew they would not hire everyone. Now I am concerned that they got my personal info, driver’s license, and Social Security number. As the interview unfolded, it was clear they were not going to hire us all, and then they already had our info.”
“Milling people in a desperate job market”
Not only did the hiring managers at Democracy Resources waste Karen’s time and while not being upfront about pay, they were not offering a typical job even for their own organization. The employee handbook says employees must get 75 signatures a week. But the Eugene office imposed its own rules: Employees must pull in 75 signatures a day or be terminated immediately. Not only that, but you must have at least 40 signatures by 2 pm or you will be terminated halfway through the day.
This condition might be less problematic if employees received appropriate training. But according to all the employees EDN interviewed, “training” entails about 30 minutes of cursory information about the petitions and about 30 minutes of roleplay before brand new employees are sent out to the field. If those brand new employees, after a mere one hour “training,” do not meet half their signature requirement in the following 3 hours, they are fired instantly and — consequently — only get paid $10 an hour for their one half-day.
“The job is pretty much milling through people in a desperate job market,” says “Jack” (name protected for anonymity). Jack worked for the Eugene branch of Democracy Resources for about two months and has worked on petitions for several canvassing groups in Oregon and elsewhere.
“There is no rotation between canvassing spots to give new employees a fair chance. The company gives locational preference to the veteran employees and sends the new ones out to either sink or swim. It’s like a slaughterhouse: they take all these poor or jobless people in, use them for a day, and then throw them out the door in a few hours once they deem them useless.”
According to a current employee, the head supervisor recently announced that over the last few months the Eugene office has hired and fired over 1,000 people. (This is with an average staff size of 30 to 40.) Why so many? Some were drunk, the supervisor claimed.*
To Jack, such high turnover is not just alarming, it’s the striking opposite of the kind of values the organization says it fights for.
“Their employment practices are exactly what progressives are fighting against.”
Ironically, while many of its petitions are backed by unions, there is no union for petitioners who work for Democracy Resources. Also, the average employee at Democracy Resources makes far less than the average union member: the average union member makes $23.45 per hour, a far cry from $10 (or $14, if you get the bonus) per hour.
“The phrase ‘You will be fired’ is repeated constantly to invoke fear among the employees. All the staff employ fear tactics. I heard, ‘You’re going to get fired,’ so many times, I wish they would have fired me. I got sick of hearing it.”
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.”
Fear-based management tactics may not technically constitute workplace harassment, but they certainly affected most employees performance mindset.
“You are told if you get 75 signatures a day, you are secure. And then every other day, they say, ‘We’re firing one person today, whoever has the lowest signatures, even if the lowest amount of signatures is above the 75 minimum.’ It messes with your mind.”
On occasion, though, some employees claimed, the situation seemed very close to the legal definition of harassment.
“One supervisor, during an employee meeting, told the employees that, if anyone didn’t make their quota, he would “tear them a new as*****”, said “Roman,” who worked with the Eugene office for two weeks.
Jack, referring to that same supervisor, said, “When he made a larger employee wear a uniform that was several sizes too small, and wouldn’t allow that employee to take it off while working, and another employee tried to stand up for the first one, he fired the person on the spot and immediately called the police to say that employee was trespassing, before the employee had a chance to pack his belongings. They treated people like dirt, like no one is better than their cause.”
Oregon labor law violations
According to the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries and Oregon law (ORS 652.140(1), “If an employee is discharged, the final paycheck is due not later than the end of the next business day.”
This is one of several important laws. Another relevant statute, ORS 652.140(4), states that whatever the method of payment, an employer must “provide an itemized statement and meet the deadlines applicable to final paychecks.”
These laws are expressly communicated to all employees at Democracy Resources. When hired, they are required — by Oregon law — to read the Circulator Trainer pamphlet provided by the Oregon Secretary of State. Democracy Resources provides this pamphlet to each employee.
(1) “If you are fired, your final paycheck is due no later than the end of the first business day after you are discharged.”
(2) “You are required to be provided with an itemized statement of deductions with each paycheck, showing the total numbers of hours worked in the pay period, your rate of pay, and the amount and a description of each deduction.”
After firing Robert Mueller on Mother’s Day, May 13, Democracy Resources was therefore required by Oregon law to give him his final paycheck on Tuesday, May 15. Robert went into the Eugene office.
“They said they didn’t know why they didn’t have my money, and they would get it figured out,” he says.
(Keep in mind that another employee, Jack, has said that the managers at the Eugene office can print a check right then and there, and have done so for him personally.)
So Robert returned that Friday, three days later.
The doors were locked at 2 pm, which is the time the employee handbook says employees can pick up checks. Robert had his child with him and needed the money for their time over the weekend, so he waited. When a manager finally showed up, Robert asked again for his check.
“I got let go on Sunday. They didn’t have a check for me on Tuesday as the law requires. Now it’s Friday, the actual end of their pay period, and there was still nothing there for me.”
Robert told the manager he was in breach of Oregon law, and said the manager replied, “Well, I don’t have a check here. What do you want me to do?”
Robert answered, “Get ahold of the company accountant or president right now. I need my paycheck to feed my kid this weekend.”
The manager claimed that wasn’t his problem. “I can’t do anything about it, and I don’t know who to call.”
Robert twice asked, “Can’t you just print the checks in this office?”
The manager said no.
Robert and his child left after Robert told the manager he would be contacting the Bureau of Labor.
After calling the Bureau of Labor that weekend and leaving a message, Robert said he never heard back from the Bureau. Not having received his paycheck, he was unable to pay his cell phone bill, and his phone was subsequently disconnected. When Robert returned to Democracy Resources the following Tuesday, a week after the legally required paydate, they finally had his money.
But not just any money.
Instead of a final paycheck, the Eugene office of Democracy Resources handed Robert Mueller a plain white envelope. Inside he found no paycheck, pay stub, tax information, or — as the pamphlet Democracy Resources gave Mueller expressly states is necessary — an “itemized statement of deductions.”
The envelope contained nothing but cash.
After all that, Robert says, he had a litany of questions.
“Why couldn’t they pay me in cash when I first went in? What happened to my check? Why did me threatening to call the Bureau of Labor twice not make anything happen? Why did it take an actual phone call to the Bureau of Labor for Democracy Resources to finally pay me?”
After all he went through, he says, receiving pay in an anonymous envelope only added insult to injury.
“How can you go out and say your line is to create 1,500 jobs in Multnomah County when you go and fire 1000 people in Eugene in two months?”
To Robert, the answer is not storming the castle, though. It is a change in approach.
“This isn’t a huge city. You don’t need the hustle of canvassers in San Francisco. Most of the people coming in were desperate for jobs, they weren’t scummy or drunks. They were willing and dedicated to work hard. And there’s a lot of other people like me, people so excited because this appeared like a lifeline. And then they take advantage of you. And it doesn’t make sense. I feel you could accomplish the same goals with the same pay rate without screwing people over.”
Robert half laughs, half sighs, “This shouldn’t be that difficult.”
One afternoon, around 4:30, 30 minutes before employees had to turn in their 75-signature minimum, when most regular jobholders were about to get off work and enjoy the cool evening breeze, one desperate canvasser could be seen rushing frantically around the University of Oregon, shouting,
“Sign my petition or I will lose my job!”
It is both sad and strange that promoting democracy has come to this.
* Note: Democracy Resources did not respond to numerous attempts on EDN’s part for comments or an interview on this or any other part of the investigative series.
Background, discussion and details are available on the R.L. Stollar, Journalist blog.