Steyer has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into progressive causes—including $120 million for the 2018 elections, $75 million in 2016 and $70 million in 2014—most notably at the organization he founded in 2013, NextGen Climate, which became NextGen America in 2017. NextGen employed dozens of field organizers in key 2018 states to support Democratic candidates, mostly at college campuses, and Steyer spent more than $30 million on “what’s believed to be the largest voter engagement effort of its kind in U.S. history,” according to the AP. Field organizers are the on-the-ground foot soldiers of campaigns: They register voters, knock on doors, call and text voters, and sign up volunteers to help out. (Following the announcement that he was joining the 2020 field, Steyer stepped down as president of NextGen, according to the organization.)
After Steyer announced his 2020 run, HuffPost reported that NextGen staffers who have recently unionized were still awaiting recognition from management, which was challenging the inclusion of some employees in the unit—allegedly up to 80 percent of them. (This is a classic tactic that employers use to reduce the size and power of bargaining units.) The Los Angeles Times noted that at NextGen, “consultants and organizers churn through Steyer’s workforce at a rate that has attracted attention even in an industry known for its tumult.”
Perhaps the reason for that turnover is that working for NextGen is, according to former staffers, hellish.
We heard from eight former NextGen organizers and fellows (part-time workers, often college students, paid via stipend), most of whose names we agreed to withhold because of the damage it could do to their careers (in an industry that doesn’t value honesty about shitty bosses or poor conditions), and because many of them told us they had signed non-disclosure agreements as a condition of their employment.
They told us via phone and Twitter direct messages about working as many as 90 hours a week, being unable to take time for doctors’ appointments, management setting absurd and unattainable goals, and poor data and targeting. We’re running some of their stories, lightly edited for clarity, below.
Prior to publication, we sent a detailed list of questions to NextGen about the claims made. While the organization mostly avoided addressing specific allegations, they did say they’ve made “significant changes to our field program” following the midterm election; their responses are included below as well. In addition, we reached out to the Steyer campaign for comment, including details on conditions for his own campaign staff and whether or not he supports NextGen’s union efforts; we will update when and if we receive a response.
A former NextGen field organizer from Florida said that in addition to burnout, NextGen’s campaign efforts appeared to lack a cohesive or useful strategy:
When I was there, just in the state of Florida it seemed they were losing about an organizer per week. Lots of people were quitting and taking jobs with campaigns that paid literally half as much. They had so many vacant positions before the election that they were actively hiring barely a month before Election Day.
When I was hired organizers got Mondays off, but shortly after I started they changed their policy to say that it was a seven day a week job. Really the only way you got a day off was if you made goals (mostly voter registration goals) early in the week but the goals were often unreachable.
I was working between 10 and 14 hours a day most days, which seemed to be what was expected. When people started complaining about burnout state leadership would always (according to them) try to talk to national leadership about it, which would usually result in some kind of laughable, reluctantly given “time off” plan that involved something like, “You get time off Fridays after 8pm and Sunday before 12pm.” These plans would change frequently. At one point maybe a month-and-a half before the election, they told everyone they could get two “flex days” off if they were pre-approved but a lot of people didn’t really know how this worked and didn’t use both of these days (I didn’t) and some people who tried to got no response or a late response when they tried to get approval.
Leadership also frequently ignored concerns from people on the ground. In the last few weeks before the elections, we were required to do at least 1000 calls a week and at least 2 hours of calls a day phone-banking for Andrew Gillum. The lists we had were horrible and our contact rates were less than 5 percent. When people asked why this was our strategy when it was clearly ineffective they said it was to clean out our data [where campaigns weed out inaccurate names and phone numbers]. Since this was way too late for cleaning the data to do any good in the 2018 elections, a lot of people suspected that the real goal was just to make sure Tom Steyer had good data for his presidential run.
A spokesperson for NextGen provided the following statement regarding Tom Steyer’s presidential campaign:
Tom Steyer has stepped down as President of NextGen and will have no role at NextGen as long as he is a candidate for President. Tom’s campaign rented our list last Tuesday to send an email announcing his run and transition from NextGen. The email was also meant to let folks on our list know that NextGen isn’t becoming part of Tom’s campaign, and we will continue to do our work independently. That was the last communication from Tom Steyer to our list. Tom Steyer was not involved in day-to-day operations and staffing decisions during the 2018 election or any other election cycle.
A former field organizer and fellow from Nevada recalled working over 80 hours a week, seven days a week, and severe burnout among NextGen workers:
This was my first job out of high school, actually my first job completely. [...] My first job was a field organizer. I worked about four months straight as an FO, 70-84 hours a week. Not an exaggeration. Seven days a week. No days off. I know on Sundays we sometimes we got like a half-ish day, where it was just a normal 8-hour work day. I saw my coworkers more than I saw my family and as an 18-year-old it’s not the best, or, you know, as a person.
There was so much burnout as well in 2016. It was insane. We had senior staff quit several times, constantly rotating between organizers. Our Reno team, I think it was two times the entire office quit and had to be rehired. Twice that happened in 2016 specifically.
They always made [self-care] a point, but they don’t give us time to self-care. You can’t take a step back when you’re working seven days a week, and you can’t go on vacation or something when you’re a field staffer, your campaign manager is taking a vacation during GOTV, and you’re left to do as much work as possible. And there’s a huge power imbalance that you’re like, well, “I can’t just take a step back because we’ll lose.” They said [do self-care] but they never gave us the actual room to do anything about it.
At one point the operations director, she came up to me and she said, “I don’t know how you’re doing it”—because I was 18—“I don’t know how you’re doing it because it looks like you’re doing all this stuff, like, if it wasn’t for you I would quit.” And then I realized that if I had quit, the operations manager would quit, several fellows would have quit, a couple of field organizers would have quit, and if the operations manager would have quit, I believe a handful of other people would have as well quit on that campaign. So I’m like, wow, if I left this campaign it would literally crumble because their sanity is holding onto an 18-year-old actually doing this work and going through the motions of this terrible 74, 94-hour-a-week job that doesn’t give you any days off and gives you no time to spend that money that you’re earning, or to rest.
Reached for comment, a NextGen spokesperson did not respond to the claim that an entire office staff had turned over twice in one cycle, but said that the organization is “working to working to empower the young people on our team who are staff, fellows, or volunteers because it’s how we help create the world we want to see. it’s hard to do this — but we think it’s worth it.” The organization also sent a copy of its “open-door policy” which is included in on-boarding for new staff:
People Operations Open Door Policy: We strive for a spirit of collaboration and open dialogue, believing strongly in an open door policy. You are encouraged to see your supervisor with questions or problems relating to your job or feelings of well-being, and we intend to welcome you when you do. It is your responsibility to bring your concerns to someone who can do something about them, but please do let us know if any barriers exist to such communication attempts. You may also exercise your right to request a meeting with NGCAC’s Human Resources. NGCAC considers it a high priority to be available to all employees whenever possible in order to foster this open-door policy.
“In addition to this being in the offer packet,” the spokesperson added, “the People Operations team highlights the policy and reiterates that if for whatever reason concerns cannot be brought to a manager, we welcome them to bring concerns directly to HR and provide them with our direct contact information.”
A former field organizer from Wisconsin recounted being pushed to meet impossible goals, and the stress caused by overwork:
The goals that they gave us were very high. I still volunteer with NextGen, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love working and associating with them as an organization. But one of the things that my former boss did say was that the goals we had were incredibly high and he was under a lot of pressure, and as a result we were under a lot of pressure in order to keep meeting them. We kept exceeding our goals, and in Platteville it became increasingly more difficult for me to keep exceeding these goals, because it was a conservative campus.
They gave UW-Platteville these goals of like 50 volunteers [for GOTV efforts], I can’t remember, it’s somewhere between like 50 and 70. I remember looking at them and being like, you can’t be fucking serious. I’ll try, but this is like going out to a desert and saying, I expect to find four gallons of water hidden somewhere behind these rocks.
And it was very hard on me, especially because volunteers stopped showing up. And my fellow, we had difficulties there, and every time I would go to try and ask someone, is there something I can do. The response was always try harder, you know, try talking to them a little bit differently, but try harder. And I was hard on myself. It was my first time doing organizing and it was something where I felt like it was my fault.
It felt like I was pretty much always on call, like there would be times where I would pass out and wake up to missed calls, and it felt like a million missed messages from my boss. But again it’s not his fault, he was under a lot of intense pressure. But it was pulling all nighters, I didn’t really have much of a chance to, you know, eat. I only slept when I couldn’t stay awake anymore and I would just pass out.
I definitely attempted to [bring up my concerns] a couple of times where I would basically say like, hey I am feeling very stressed, very overwhelmed, there are a lot of these problems, what can I do about them? And the message was just pretty much always the same, just keep trying, keep doing, keep giving 110 percent. I tended to stray away from the whole actual mental health problems, mental suffering, whatever you want to call it, just because I was afraid that I would be looked down upon. But that’s not NextGen’s fault, that’s just general living as someone with mental illness, the fear of that, but also at the same time I kind of feel as if I were to say, “Hey, I’m legitimately experiencing suicidal ideation,” the response would be, “I’m so sorry, that’s awful, but we need you to keep trying.”
A former NextGen organizer from Pennsylvania said that she was forced to reschedule a doctors’ appointment to receive birth control several times, and then urged to go back to work immediately after having an IUD placed:
I tried to make four separate doctors’ appointments at the Planned Parenthood literally in my turf. I would have not had to go out of my way at all. All I would have to do was wait for the actual appointment to hopefully get birth control again. I was told to reschedule [by my supervisor] four separate times.
When I finally did go to the Planned Parenthood I had at least gotten to the point with them where I was able to decide on an IUD. I went to go get my IUD placed and I was told while I was in the doctor’s office getting my IUD placed that as soon as that device was placed I had to go out to a school to help my supervisor, and I was like, “I am getting a device inserted in my body and it’s causing a lot of pain. I’m not going to be able to do this.” And they were like, “No no no, we just need bodies there, you can sit.” And I was like, “Cool, I’m going to sit in pain.” I didn’t go. I went home.
Asked whether it was official policy not to let organizers see doctors during working hours and what their time off policy was, NextGen’s spokesperson said that the organization “routinely encourages staff to take time off and coaches managers on how to properly plan for and approve time off in an equitable manner,” and that it directs “all staffers to see their doctors whenever they need to.” The spokesperson said that NextGen was “not aware of any incident in which an employee was not granted time off to see their doctor and deeply regret if this occurred.”
NextGen also said it had changed its policies since the midterms. “Following the 2018 election, we made significant changes to our field program—including increased compensation across all field positions, a wellness benefit, relocation assistance, unlimited vacation time subject to manager approval, and 100% health coverage for employees and 90% coverage for their dependents,” the spokesperson said.
Finally, a former NextGen organizer from Pennsylvania said there was “no incentive to perform or overperform, just no incentive to do the job ever”:
Sometimes we’d hit our goal on Friday and we’d ask if we could have Saturday and Sunday, a normal weekend, and they would say no. And give us like 300 [additional contact goals]. There’s no incentive to perform or overperform, just no incentive to do the job ever.
It was never like, this is your weekly goal, hit it, [here’s] how you can hit it, and then exist for the week how you want. It was this fake autonomy that was given to us, like, you can structure your days however you see best fit but also this hidden guilt if you weren’t constantly working. We were constantly being reached out to by our supervisors. I had my supervisor contact, like, call me at midnight multiple times, or even later. And it was ridiculous. I already didn’t enjoy working in that environment and it was constantly following me around.
Everyone would always say it’s hard work, like not everyone can do this work, and use that as a very dismissive phrase any time a valid concern was brought up. I think it’s fair to note I know that campaign work is hard, and it is unconventional work, but that doesn’t mean that the workers doing it don’t deserve basic dignity in what they’re doing.
If you worked for NextGen and want to talk, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clarification: The headline has been changed to reflect that the organizers and fellows we spoke with no longer work at NextGen.