Former field organizers for Michael Bloomberg filed two proposed class-action lawsuits against his presidential campaign Monday, arguing that they and thousands of others laid off this month had been tricked into taking jobs they were told would last until November.
The lawsuits, both filed in federal court in New York City, argued that the campaign had recruited staff members to work on Bloomberg’s bid under false pretenses, preventing them from pursuing other opportunities. One of the suits, brought by a former field organizer in Florida, also alleged the campaign had breached its contract with its organizers and failed to pay them necessary overtime.
In dismissing the workers eight months earlier than promised, that complaint said, the campaign had “deprived them of promised income and health care benefits, leaving them and their families potentially uninsured in the face of a global pandemic.” (Despite the campaign’s promises of continued employment, the field organizers had signed at-will contracts, indicating they could be terminated at any point.)
“People are going from a pretty generous health care benefit to projected 20 to 30% unemployment,” said Sally J. Abrahamson, a lawyer with Outten & Golden in Washington representing Donna Wood, a former field organizer in Miami who was laid off on Friday and filed the breach of contract suit. “It’s kind of jaw-dropping that Bloomberg spent what he did on the race and wouldn’t at least provide health insurance for these folks.”
A spokeswoman for the campaign initially declined to comment on Monday, later issuing a statement announcing that “a fund is being created to ensure that all staff receive health care through April, something no other campaign has done.”
“Staff worked 39 days on average, but they were also given several weeks of severance and health care through March, something no other campaign did this year,” the statement said.
Within hours of Wood’s complaint, a second proposed class-action suit was filed in the same court, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, by former campaign workers in Georgia, Utah and Washington state.
“Michael Bloomberg and his campaign made a promise,” that complaint said, claiming promissory estoppel, or harm done to the former employees who rearranged their lives, forgoing other jobs and plans to apply to graduate school, based on the promise that they would work on the general election.
“After Bloomberg lost the Democratic nomination, his campaign unceremoniously dumped thousands of staffers,” the complaint said.
For some New York-based employees who lost their jobs last week, the news came immediately after the campaign had circulated an email informing them that a coworker was infected with the coronavirus and they had potentially been exposed.
Bloomberg — a multibillionaire who entered the Democratic race in late November and dropped out in early March — assembled an army of campaign workers quickly, attracting them with unusually high pay, full benefits and the lure of campaign work through the fall, regardless of who won the Democratic nomination. He spent more than $900 million along the way and repeatedly promised to deploy his campaign in service of whoever the party ultimately selected.
But on March 9, days after he exited the race, Bloomberg’s campaign laid off field workers in all but six battleground states, asking if they were open to relocating to one of those states — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — or if they wanted to be referred to another presidential campaign.
Last week, as he announced an $18 million donation to the Democratic National Committee in place of a new super PAC designed to help Democrats in the presidential race, Bloomberg also laid off staff members like Wood who had worked in those six states.
His campaign invited all former employees to apply to work for the DNC, though it called the hiring process competitive and specified that pay and benefits would be different. The campaign said in a news release last week that DNC staffing would draw “in part from our own incredibly experienced and talented organizing staff.”
Some affected employees, including people who had left stable jobs to work for Bloomberg, as Wood did, expressed frustration publicly, in spite of the confidentiality and non-disparagement agreements they had signed. They said they would not have accepted the work had they known its true terms.
Most immediately, some former employees, like those from Georgia, Utah and Washington who sued on Monday, were seeking to be freed from those broad confidentiality agreements, according to Peter Romer-Friedman, a lawyer at the firm Gupta Wessler who represents them.
Brynne Craig, a senior adviser to Bloomberg, said last week that the former mayor remained determined to fund the effort to topple President Donald Trump.
“We’re changing the mechanism, not our commitment,” she said, calling it more effective to coordinate field efforts through the DNC.
While some field organizers have applied for the DNC work, they remain aggrieved. “This is a tight-knit community, and they’re all mad, they’re all hurt and they’re all scared, especially at a time when health insurance is so important,” Gregg I. Shavitz, another lawyer for Wood, said Monday.
A set of interview talking points used by the campaign to hire field organizers and seen by The New York Times referred to “full health, dental and vision benefits” and “employment through November 2020 with Team Bloomberg.” But signed contracts seen by The Times also stipulated that employment was at-will, allowing for termination at any time. The contracts also specified that the workers were “classified as exempt from the overtime provisions of federal and applicable state laws.”
Wood’s legal complaint challenged that, claiming violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and arguing that none of the exemptions applied to the field organizers, who had little leeway in doing their jobs and routinely worked more than 40 hours a week.
“Essentially, you need to be running an organization or have a lot of discretion,” Abrahamson said of the claim. “You maybe don’t see a lot of these in campaign world because people don’t want to come forward and burn employers, but this is an unprecedented time.”