Win or Lose, Campaign Staffers Usually Unemployed After Election

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By Maeve Allsup

Sept. 29 — Behind most political candidates is an army that seldom sleeps: volunteers and staffers working long hours to ensure the campaign runs smoothly. Candidates depend on them for everything from scrubbing toilets at headquarters to knocking on voters’ doors, but by the end of November many of those workers will be unemployed.

“In November every campaign in America will go out of business,” said Evan Stewart, executive director of Campaign Hunter, a staffing agency that pairs conservative operatives with Republican campaigns around the country. Those who want to make a career out of campaign work “can pretty much expect to be unemployed for three months following the election.”

The number of people working for political organizations peaks in October, data from the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics show. In 2012, during the last presidential election cycle, 19,073 workers were employed at that point in the campaign season.

Where does this army of workers go once the election cycle ends? Not all of them follow their candidate into a permanent position.

“There will inevitably be more staffers who want jobs with their party’s elected officials than there are jobs available,” said David Fenner, vice president of programs at the Leadership Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that provides training for campaign work, grassroots organizing and communications.

“The number of positions open depends on the overall position of the party they are affiliated with and whether they’re working on an incumbent or challenger campaign,” Fenner said. “Incumbents likely already have a full staff, and challengers are generally unsuccessful. Changes in party control of legislatures and executive branches create the most job prospects as numerous committee and agency positions open to the governing party.”

But there is a light at the end of the unemployment tunnel even for staffers who don’t work on successful campaigns. The skills they developed during the election mean they will quickly be scooped up for new jobs, said Chris Jones, founder and president of PoliTemps, a political staffing service for the D.C. area.

Good Experience and Plenty of It

This influx of unemployed staffers back into the job market is also likely to be good news for both public- and private-sector organizations looking to hire experienced individuals, Jones said.

“Working on a campaign helps prepare you for the workforce in a way that many other positions might not,” Jones said. “It gives you some core skills to be a good employee—and a good employer. You learn how to collaborate with others and work in a fast-paced environment on a very specific deadline—Election Day—all while exposed to the public eye and interacting with people on a regular basis.”

Stewart agrees. “Campaign work forces you to learn responsibility, and it’s incredibly easy to find yourself managing other people in a very short amount of time,” he said. “You learn organization skills and one-on-one communication techniques. It truly is one of the most rewarding jobs and experiences you can have.”

Grunt Work Part of Job

Some campaign staffers step out from behind the scenes at times to speak to banks of media cameras and respond to reporters’ questions, but not every moment of campaign work is so glamorous.“In reality, it’s not glamorous at all,” Stewart said. “On a campaign, it doesn’t matter what your position is, because everyone gets their hands dirty. When it comes close to the election even the campaign manager is going to be on the phone making calls to voters.”

Depending on the size of the campaign the grunt work can vary, said Patricia Simpson, director of career programs at the Leadership Institute. “On smaller campaigns all levels of staffers do basic work. A manager might clean the bathrooms at headquarters, because they need to be kept clean and stocked, and the campaign doesn’t hire people specifically for that purpose.”

A willingness to get your hands dirty is invaluable on a campaign, but it doesn’t guarantee a job after the election. So some campaign workers head to other sectors of the workforce.

“For many young staffers, unemployment means moving home to live with mom and dad for a while and that can really weigh on you,” Stewart said. “Many people decide to go back to school or get a more permanent job.”

Candidates and FLSA

Campaigns are, like most other employers, faced with Fair Labor Standards Act compliance issues, and they tend to spend a lot of time ensuring labor laws are understood and adhered to, said Joshua Ian Rosenstein of Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock P.C. in Washington.

“There is a very complicated interplay between federal regulations and what may be in place for state law,” Rosenstein said.

Despite the incredibly long hours worked by staffers, campaigns rarely face issues of paying overtime, said Michael Toner, a partner at Wiley Ryan in Washington, D.C.

“Many staffers work for independent contractors, polling firms, fundraising firms and media firms, and because the campaign doesn’t directly employ these people they don’t have to deal with the overtime,” he said.

Senior-level staffers are likely paid salary and are exempt from overtime based on the current salary threshold in the FLSA, Toner said. However, the Labor Department’s final rule to raise this threshold, set to take effect Dec. 1, would inevitably affect campaign workers’ pay structure.

This upcoming change is unlikely to result in campaigns paying more overtime, as they will likely respond by redoubling efforts to get volunteers and raise staffer salaries, Toner said.

Rosenstein said he expects the final overtime rule to “force campaigns to re-examine their work forces and adjust income, duties and hours accordingly, making the necessary changes to the work force and compensation structure.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Maeve Allsup in Washington at mallsup@bna.com

To contact the editor on this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

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