Hello, Wanna Give to a Good Cause? 

Idealistic nonprofits hire a for-profit company to solicit donations. But the conditions canvassers work under are far from ideal.

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These days, some organizations run their own canvassing operations. Several years ago, Greenpeace broke ties with The Fund and now does its own fund-raising. But for many, whose budgets rely as much on canvassing dollars as foundation grants, it's simply become more cost effective to outsource the burdensome task to an already well-oiled machine.

Angela Badami was offered $24,000 a year for the position as an assistant canvassing director for MoveOn's get-out-the-vote campaign. It was modest by most standards, but it came with the possibility of health benefits. And, besides, it was an opportunity to work on the ground for a cause she firmly believed in, and to get a foot in the door in the world of progressive political organizing.

"I really wanted to jump into the political scene on a more grassroots level," said Badami, who now works as a special education teacher at an Oakland middle school. She was offered the job in August, but the MoveOn campaign she'd been hired for didn't actually start until mid-September. So for the first month, Badami served as "Assistant Director of Canvassing" for the Democratic National Convention, which essentially meant standing in the middle of busy downtown San Francisco sidewalks canvassing for roughly thirteen hours a day, six days a week. Badami says that during the hiring process, it wasn't made clear that she'd be doing so much street work, especially given her supposed managerial status.

Long hours aside, her initial impression with the work was less than enthusiastic. "They have their rap that they want you to memorize for everything, in all instances," she remembered. "I thought that was really stifling."

But she stuck with it. In September, Badami and eight of her co-workers opened up a MoveOn campaign office in downtown San Francisco. Her new title was "Volunteer Coordinator," and her task was calling MoveOn's membership to recruit volunteers to come into the office and call voters in swing states. Although the nature of the work was closer to the description of what she had initially signed on for, the intensity increased, as did the hours; for those nearly two months leading up to the election, she was working more than fifteen hours a day without a single day off. According to Badami, Grassroots Campaigns, Inc.'s management all but prohibited her and her staff from taking any time off during those two months, and strongly discouraged them using their federally mandated thirty-minute lunch and dinner breaks.

"Everyone was feeling worn out and frustrated," she said. "There was very little autonomy."

Any complaints made to management about the hours or the pay were met with well-practiced shaming speeches, she said. "It always kind of turned into a guilt trip," she recalled. "They'd tell us: 'It's for the cause. As long as the cause is being reached, it doesn't matter if you can feed yourself or not.' ... It claims to be progressive, but not to its own employees."

Badami also aired her grievances to Wes Jones, Grassroots Campaigns, Inc.'s national canvassing director, who, she says, was generally unresponsive. "He said, 'These are sacrifices we all make,' but didn't say anything to the effect of 'I understand your concerns.' I was not happy afterward."

Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. initially declined to comment for this story, but after multiple interview requests, Jones included the following statement in an e-mail: "I'm ... confident that we clearly communicate the nature of the work up front and invest a lot in our staff's training and success," he wrote. "So, while canvassing is a tough job and not for everyone, it's a good first step into campaign work for hundreds of people every year."

Employee morale deteriorated further when Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. management made an aggressive push for staff to buy into the company's health plan, which, says Badami, was $300 a month, or roughly 20 percent of her entire salary. At this point, she was already relying on ancillary funds from her parents to make rent and feed herself. In the end, almost no one went for it. "It seems like they weren't understanding why we couldn't be part of their health care plan," she said.

The final blow came on payday. Badami and her co-workers noticed that, according to the notation on their checks, they were being compensated for working a forty-hour week at $11 an hour, and had been classified as exempt from overtime wages. "When we looked at that we said, 'Okay, something's not right here. We worked more than that and we're not hourly.' They were trying to avoid paying us overtime," she said. "We looked at the law and realized we were not getting the wages that we were legally required to get."

Under California law, salaried, non-commission employees can't be refused overtime compensation unless they are paid at least double the minimum wage for no less than forty hours a week, which in 2006 would have been more than $28,000 a year. Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. had already been sued a year before by a group of students in Oregon who had canvassed on behalf of the DNC during the 2004 presidential election, and claimed they had been paid the much lower federal, not state, minimum wage.

"Essentially, a lot of companies assume it's up to them who they pay set salaries or wages to," said Robert Nelson, an employment attorney who represented Badami and her co-workers. "Were laws broken? Unequivocally, yes."

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