Democratic campaign staffer sues, says DNC didn't pay OT

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her running mate Tim Kaine are on stage as the balloons fall on the final night of the DNC at the Wells Fargo Center Thursday, July 28, 2016. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

A Democratic campaign organizer filed suit in federal court in Philadelphia on Wednesday, saying that she and others were forced to work 80 to 90 hours a week and were not paid overtime by the Pennsylvania Democratic Committee, and through it, the Democratic National Committee.

"I don't want to harm the Democratic Party," Bethany Katz of Rosemont said Thursday. "I just want it to stand up for the principles it puts forth."

Katz said she's a Democrat who believes in "Hillary Clinton's cause," which is why the 21-year-old college graduate with a degree in history and political science took a job as an organizer for the Democratic National Committee over the summer, from June to August. She earned $3,000 a month. 

"I wanted to be a part of history," Katz said. "It's unfortunate she didn't win."

Marcel Groen, chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Committee, had no comment Thursday, saying he had not seen the lawsuit. There was no response from the Democratic National Committee.

No one gets overtime on political campaigns, said Neil Oxman, founder of the Philadelphia-based Campaign Group, who has worked on "hundreds and hundreds of races" on the national, state, and local levels.

"I've hired hundreds and hundreds of people. I've watched thousands of people work on campaigns. People know these jobs are 80- to 100-hours-a-week jobs. No one asks for overtime. If they did, people would think they were joking.

"The number of young people who want to work on campaigns is infinite," Oxman said. "They like to do it. It's exciting for them. The kids are working on campaigns because they love Michael Nutter, or they love Hillary Clinton, or they love Bernie Sanders. Pretty much everyone who works a campaign knows it's not the best-paying job in the world."

Katz's lawyer, Justin L. Swidler of Swartz Swidler LLC in Cherry Hill, dismissed the idea that long uncompensated hours are just part of campaign culture.

"It's illegal," Swidler said. "The realities are that there are a lot of industries that would like to make their people work 80 to 90 hours a week and not pay them."

In her lawsuit, Katz said she was hired in June to assist in a "nationally coordinated Democratic 'ground game' which sought to increase the Democratic vote." She and her fellow organizers spent a lot of time on the phone, soliciting volunteers and assisting voters with registration, according to the suit. She typically worked 80 to 90 hours a week, on the job seven days a week, often putting in 12- to 14-hour days, the suit said.

In an interview, Katz said she quit the job in August because "I felt like I was being treated unfairly." She said she "left her home early and I came back late, and I knew it was wrong." Her father, who is a lawyer, also began to question her hours. 

Swidler said Katz was adamant that the suit not be filed until after the election, because she didn't want to distract the party from getting Clinton elected.

These days, Katz, who graduated from college in Virginia, is looking for work and studying to take exams that would qualify her to be a teacher. 

The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status on behalf of all DNC campaign organizers working within the last three years, said the committees erroneously classified her and other organizers as exempt employees, meaning they would not be eligible for overtime because their jobs were administrative or managerial. 

Filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, the lawsuit said that by not paying overtime, the party violated the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act and the Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Act.

Katz's suit comes at an interesting time in labor law. On Dec. 1, new regulations will go into effect that will require everyone who earns $913 a week or less to receive overtime, no matter whether their duties are managerial in nature or routine. 

Oxman said that when the law goes into effect, most campaign groups will respond by hiring organizers as independent contractors.

"There is an irony here," said Swidler: The Democrats campaigned on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour so workers would be paid fairly, yet "despite pushing these principles, they weren't following them."