WASHINGTON — The Democrats running for president all agree on the same thing: Every worker in America should make at least $15 per hour.
But some of those campaigns are barely meeting that $15 threshold for their lowest-paid organizers; indeed, some would be below it when factoring in the likely scenario that employees are working more than 40 hours a week.
VICE News reviewed the spending reports of every Democratic candidate, which are publicly available through the Federal Election Commission website. The salaries reported reflect employees’ take-home pay, after withholdings for income taxes and benefits.
Some of the lowest-paid campaign staffers are employed by New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, both of whom have advocated for a universal minimum wage of $15 per hour. Their annual take-home pay ranges from $24,000 to $28,500 a year.
Tax experts said that would put them right around $15 an hour for 40 hours a week. But while the reports don’t indicate the number of hours worked, many low-level field organizing staff, many of them fresh out of college, routinely log workweeks of 50 to 60 hours, or more.
“We need to #RaiseTheWage to $15 an hour and give more than 41 million low-wage workers a raise,” Gabbard tweeted in March of last year. But FEC filings show that Gabbard, who has few full-time staffers and retains several workers as contractors, employs some staff who take home just over $2,000 per month, expenditures show. A spokesperson for her campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
And in 2017, Booker said, “You cannot live and raise a family on $22,000 a year.” In May, Booker joined a Fight for 15 protest by Iowa McDonald’s workers against low pay. He also endorsed a bill, introduced in 2017 by Bernie Sanders, to enact a $15 minimum wage nationally.
But campaign expenditures show that the former Newark mayor employs at least 17 people, many of them young field organizers in states like Iowa, who take home between $28,000 and $33,000 annually. Booker’s lowest-paid staffers took home under $2,400 in May, an amount that equals about $28,500 annually.
A spokesperson for the Booker campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A website for the candidate’s open jobs says that the campaign provides free healthcare, as well as 12 weeks of paid parental leave and a combined 32 days of paid time off and sick leave.
Booker raised $4.5 million last quarter, putting him sixth among Democrats running for president; Gabbard raised $1.6 million.
Tax experts said it can be tricky to use post-tax earnings to determine what an employee’s pre-tax salary is — a number of factors, like state income taxes, along with healthcare and retirement contributions, determine what an employer will withhold every pay period. But best guesses show it’s unlikely that a person working more than 40 hours per week, and taking home between $2,000 and $2,400 per month, is actually making $15 an hour.
Jason Oh, a tax attorney and faculty adviser at the University of California-Los Angeles’s Colloquium on Tax Policy & Public Finance, reverse-engineered the math. If an employee is single, without dependents, and living in a state without additional income tax, $15 an hour for a 40-hour work week means she would be making about $30,000 annually.
After about $4,000 in federal taxes, her take-home pay would be about $2,200 per month.
But if that employee is working up to 60 hours per week, “it’s going to cut your hourly wage by a third if you are a salaried employee, or if they’re not paying you overtime,” Oh said.
Low wages have long been standard for field organizers, who manage volunteers in cities around the country and dedicate themselves to candidates they hope will win the White House and later employ them. But it’s a fraught issue in this election cycle for a field of Democrats rallying around the fight for fair wages.
Fighting for $15
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has the first presidential campaign with unionized staffers, but the Washington Post recently reported a tense dispute between management and the union earlier this month. Leaked documents showed that employees were unhappy to only be earning $36,000 a year while working 60 hours a week — an effective $13 hourly wage.
On Tuesday, Sanders told CNN that the union and campaign reached a deal that would increase field organizers’ pay to $42,000 to compensate for the additional hours worked.
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg pays his field organizers a salary that assumes they will work 50-hour weeks, his spokesman told the Washington Post.
The FEC filings reflect candidates’ spending from the second quarter of 2019. Some candidates entered the presidential race earlier than others and, consequently, have more robust spending information that gives the public a fuller idea of what their employees make. Just as filings don’t indicate whether employees are working overtime, they also don’t show whether an employee might be working less than 40 hours a week, or how far into a pay period an employee joined a campaign; field organizer positions, though, are generally full-time.
VICE News reached out to spokespeople for the top-polling presidential candidates who have not publicly stated how much they pay their lowest-level employees, and whose campaign expenditures show that they employ salaried workers.
A spokesperson for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the highest-polling and most progressive Democrats running for president, says that all of Warren’s employees, of which there are about 300 around the country, make at least $42,000 annually and receive free health care. Warren raised just over $19 million last quarter, behind only former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Warren has endorsed Sanders’ $15 minimum wage bill, and pointed out in March that, if wages rose with inflation in the U.S., workers would be earning $22 per hour.
Likewise, a spokesperson for Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar says staffers make a base salary of $42,000.
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, too, appears to employ half a dozen people who take home between $1,330 and $1,453 per pay period. A spokesperson for Gillibrand declined to comment.
Buttigieg’s spokesperson told the Post that the campaign pays its organizers $3,500 per month for their 50-hour workweeks. That’s about $16 per hour.
Some campaigns have higher base salaries: Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, who ranked eighth among Democrats in fundraising last quarter, doesn’t pay any staffer below $50,400 annually, a spokesperson for the campaign says.
That’s a higher base salary than what Biden, the second-highest earner last quarter, offers his staff. A spokesperson for the Biden campaign told reporters on Sunday that his field organizers make $48,000 annually.
Cover: Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey and 2020 presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign stop in Pelham, New Hampshire, U.S., on Sunday, July 14, 2019. (Photo: Elizabeth Frantz/Bloomberg via Getty Images)