Gill: Working conditions for campaign workers have gotten better — and need to continue to get better

By Tom Bergeron
Trenton | Feb 28, 2020 at 4:00 am

Brendan Gill remembers the first campaign he worked on. It was 1996, he was right out of Seton Hall University. And he was a field leader, supporting Bill Pascrell’s first run for the House of Representatives.

“Make that a field representative,” he said.

The exact details are a little blurry — but don’t blame that on age. It was more of the time. Campaigns were looser then.

Gill said he worked a lot, made a little — and saw his family even less.

“I had the responsibility for running all of the direct voter contact program in Essex County on behalf of the campaign,” he said. “This is how things worked back then. I worked every day. We didn’t have hours. I didn’t have an employee handbook. And there weren’t any (human resources) rules posted in a break room.

“It was considered a campaign and campaigns were not considered (traditional workplaces) then.”

Those days are gone. And Gill couldn’t be happier about it.

Now, he is a veteran of numerous statewide campaigns — including victories for the late Frank Lautenberg (U.S. Senate), Cory Booker (U.S. Senate) and the successful 2017 gubernatorial run by Phil Murphy, when he served as campaign manager.

Gill said things are different now. That’s why he bristles at an allegation that Murphy’s campaign was anything less than professional.

“We had individuals who had the responsibility of overseeing HR,” he said. “We had two campaign counsels. They set up the process. They drew up the employee handbook, and the agreements that people signed. They set all those processes up.”

And it wasn’t their first time doing so. Murphy hired Washington, D.C.-based Perkins Coie — a veteran agency that Gill said is working with many of the current Democratic presidential hopefuls.

But, for all that’s changed, Gill said more changes are coming. He welcomes that, too.

“You’re starting to see unionization, which is a good thing,” he said. “You’re seeing more focus on how complaints, just like complaints in other workplaces, are being handled.

“Campaigns are no different than any other workplace environment. And I think they’re being treated much more so right now. And you’re seeing that across the presidential campaigns on the Democratic side right now. They’ve had HR issues that have come into public view.”

Many would argue campaigns are different than most workplaces. For one, Gill said they can be viewed as fast-moving startups.

“(Here’s) the thing you have to understand about campaigns,” he said. “I think sometimes people might not realize that campaigns are essentially mini startup organizations — they go from 5-10 employees to maybe 80-100 in a six- or seven-month period. And I don’t say that to excuse (inappropriate behavior). If there was behavior that shouldn’t have happened, or if someone felt that they weren’t treated properly, that doesn’t mean any of that should be tolerated.

“It just means that when you scale up that quickly, in a high-intense environment, you’re probably going to run into HR complaints and HR issues. And I would say this campaign, versus other campaigns that I had been a part, had very few HR complaints and/or issues.”

Gill said those running HR on the Murphy campaign — and all campaigns — have to deal with the various classifications of workers: full time, part time, consultant, volunteer. Classifications that he said can change quickly.

“I was a consultant and then I became a full-time member of the campaign,” he said. “This is where these kinds of classifications do get tricky — and then they do become relevant when you start to have potential HR issues.

“Are volunteers treated as workers? Are they entitled to the same protections and rights that a campaign worker is entitled to? Vendors and consultants are generally treated a certain way versus staff. But I would just say this campaign had those classifications like all campaigns do, and they had a process for all of those buckets, and for how all those buckets should be treated.”

Then there’s the idea of NDAs, or nondisclosure agreements, that some campaign workers have to sign.

“I don’t think you necessarily need to have NDAs,” he said. “I would say you need to have employment agreements that can be used to protect proprietary information. If you work for Coke, you can’t walk across the street to Pepsi with information that you acquired while working for Coca-Cola. These distinctions are important.

“And, I think as campaigns move forward, and you’re seeing this again across not just campaigns, but other industries, what type of agreements do you need that protect employers when they have certain types of information that needs to be protected?”

For as happy as he was with how HR was handled on the Murphy campaign, Gill said he expects that there will be changes in the next election cycle.

“Absolutely, things should be different,” he said. “I think, after each election cycle, things should improve for the working conditions on a campaign. So, any improvements that help improve workplace conditions I would be supportive of.

“Since when I started on campaigns, the focus on the quality of the work conditions has improved substantially. And I hope and expect that that trend will continue in future years.”