A volunteer on Andrew Yang’s 2020 presidential campaign is suing for discrimination and retaliation, alleging that after she spoke up about misogyny in campaign Facebook groups, she was denied opportunities for advancement. Now, Yang’s lawyers are trying to get the case thrown out, arguing that because the volunteer, Erica Lee, was never hired as a paid staffer, she doesn’t have the labor protections she’s claiming.
“If their argument prevails, any volunteer anywhere can be horrible sexually harassed, or the victim of horrible discrimination, and there would be no recourse,” says Lee’s lawyer, Vincent P. White. “I don’t know if anyone wants to live in that world. It’s a horrific world that they’re describing.”
Andrew Yang’s lawyers declined to respond on the record.
The case highlights the lack of labor rights that volunteers have in the United States. Today, only a handful of states, including California, Oregon, and New York, have laws that protect interns and volunteers from harassment and discrimination in the workplace. In politics, where volunteers make up the majority of the campaign workforce, the implications are that unpaid staffers often have no protections or legal recourse if they are harassed.
“Campaigns are hugely dependent on volunteers,” explains an administrator of the Twitter account Organizer Memes, who asked to remain anonymous. “They often fill positions that otherwise would require a full-time employee. Democratic campaigns couldn’t function without volunteers, so the idea that they shouldn’t be protected from harassment because they’re doing this out of the goodness of their heart is wild.”
Allison Groves, a regional organizing director in Iowa, says Yang’s campaign stood out for how much responsibility it awarded volunteers. “They blurred the line between staff and volunteers a lot,” she says. “They expected volunteers to take on the responsibilities of what would typically be staff responsibilities.”
Leaked documents from the Yang campaign describe the responsibilities given to interns and volunteers, who were described as “our most precious resource.” In a section on social media content, one document read, “Posts are designed to show the grassroots movement for the campaign, which means, these posts are done by volunteers and interns. Campaign paid staffers are not allowed to create content.”
Regional directors were told to get the most out of volunteers by making personal connections.
“If someone says they can’t volunteer on Saturday because they have to watch their grandkids, ask how old they are,” a document reads. “Take any opening possible to connect. Use those connections as a jumping off point to a second and third ask. This will produce more shifts and begin the process of establishing a strong personal relationship that will lead to high production and reschedules.”
Lee’s lawsuit is attempting to improve working conditions for volunteers, according to her lawyers. It comes amid a flurry of organizing activity on Capitol Hill. Last week, staffers at eight US House offices filed petitions to unionize in an effort to improve working conditions, pay, and time off policies. The move suggests that government offices, which have lagged behind other industries in terms of progress for white-collar workers, might be improving. But whether those changes will trickle down to political campaigns is still unclear.
In 2019, Lee began working as a Yang Gang Regional Organizer in Washington, a position that involved coordinating dozens of volunteers. She was given an email address — email@example.com — to conduct her work. The campaign implied Lee would be paid for this role, but no paycheck ever materialized, according to the complaint.
Lee’s argument that she thought she would be paid for the role “does not cure the fatal defect” in her case, Yang’s lawyers argue. She was never hired as a paid staffer.
Lee says she was harassed by other volunteers when she raised concerns about sexist comments in one of the campaign’s official Facebook groups. The matter was sent to HR but remained unresolved until Lee was fired in September 2019.
The following month, Lee spoke to Andrew Yang about the firing. The former presidential candidate said he would have someone from the campaign follow up but then stopped returning her phone calls.
Lee filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but it was dismissed on the grounds that she wasn’t an employee.
Lee says her job as Yang Gang Regional Organizer in Washington involved reaching out to new volunteers, coordinating trainings, and disseminating campaign messaging. “Almost none of the volunteers I worked with had worked on a campaign before,” she says. “We’d go out to the park to canvass, and I’d teach them how to do that. I was not just some person on an overpass with a Yang sign.”