Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has built much of her political career as a champion of workers and consumers against the deceptive and exploitative practices of corporations and employers.
But as she navigates the latest chapter of that career arc—a run for the Democratic nomination for the presidency—the Massachusetts Democrat faces criticism from several of her own supporters who said the lowest tier of her campaign structure doesn’t match the image she projects.
Two early converts to Warren described the process for entry into her campaign’s volunteer fellowship program as deceptive and at times exploitative in interviews with The Daily Beast. They said they were pushed toward unpaid positions over paid ones, misled over the availability of financial assistance, and asked to sign highly restrictive nondisclosure agreements that worker advocacy groups concede are irregular. Both applicants verified their accounts with emails and text messages from the Warren campaign.
The complaints from those offered unpaid fellowships could raise new questions for Warren as she seeks to put her lengthy history of advocating for consumer and worker rights at the center of her rising campaign.
“What was sold to me was very different than it actually was,” said Jonathan Nendze, a rising senior at Seton Hall University who was offered a volunteer fellowship position on Warren’s campaign. “It was kind of a great scam of getting people to show up and work in the capacity of volunteer, but to function as a paid intern in the amount of work they’re doing,” he said.
Like other Democrats running for the White House, Warren’s campaign offers paid internships. But unlike many others, the campaign also offers volunteer fellowships and volunteer fellowships for academic credit. Earlier this month, The Daily Beast reported that some workers’ rights groups and activists worried that having an unpaid option could lead to a loophole for campaigns to exploit free labor. In the aftermath of that report, two applicants who were offered positions in Warren’s volunteer fellowship program in early-voting states came forward to say that they felt their experiences illustrated those fears.
Nendze told The Daily Beast that he drove about five hours from Little Falls, New Jersey, to Manchester, New Hampshire, for what he hoped would be an exciting entryway into the field of political campaigns. Prior to arriving in Manchester, he said, he had multiple communications with Warren campaign workers over the fellowship program. But as those talks continued, it became increasingly unclear what the difference between volunteer fellow and paid intern was.
“The way they always communicated it was always fellow/intern, like they were synonymous,” he said. “Their application kind of took advantage of people who were really eager to get experience.”
Prior to orientation, Nendze said he was told multiple times that an organizer would get back to him about possible payment. “I was getting super-concerned,” Nendzes said. “I had no information about where to go, if I was being paid. If they had told me upfront that I was unpaid, maybe I would have been able to prepare better.”
Ultimately, Nendze was offered a position as a volunteer fellow. As part of the on-boarding process, he was sent a mandatory non-disclosure agreement—to sign upon accepting the offer and passing the campaign’s vetting process—stating that volunteer fellows would “not communicate with any member of the press” or “make any statement that may impair or otherwise adversely affect the goodwill or reputation” of Warren for President Inc., among other provisions.
The Campaign Workers Guild, a group focused on improving working conditions on campaigns, said providing NDAs to unpaid volunteers on campaigns is not a common practice, though it occasionally happens in large-scale races. Former Vice President Joe Biden, one of the only Democratic 2020 campaigns to offer a similar unpaid fellowship program, does not require volunteer fellows to sign NDAs, a campaign official confirmed.
Warren’s campaign, which brought in $19.1 million in fundraising during the second quarter of 2019, declined to comment specifically on the use of NDAs for volunteer fellowship positions. Additionally, it has defended the use of unpaid volunteer fellowships on grounds that many fellows “receive stipends from educational institutions or other third-parties” and that those in the intern and fellowship programs have “access to cost-free supporter housing while they’re working in-state.” But according to internal campaign emails obtained by The Daily Beast, the campaign has not always clearly conveyed this to the fellows themselves.
In one email to Nendze and other incoming fellows, Eleanor Wood, the campaign’s New Hampshire’s deputy organizing director, wrote that the team would “do our best” to provide housing, rather than guarantee it.
“If you are moving to NH, we will do our best to provide summer supporter housing,” Wood wrote in an email dated on May 31, describing “a cohort of 50+ volunteer fellows and paid interns” in New Hampshire.
The Warren campaign reiterated that all fellows and interns receive free housing.
The promise of free housing was the biggest draw for Cole, a recent political science graduate at a Chicago-based school who initially agreed to a volunteer fellowship position with the Warren campaign in Des Moines, Iowa.
Cole, who asked that his last name not be used, recalled telling Grace Smith—a Polk County field organizer with the Warren campaign—that he didn’t believe he could cover living expenses without being paid. “She said it’s totally understandable,” he said, describing their conversation. “There’s this great housing program,” Cole said Smith stressed.
Cole was offered the position by Smith over the phone on May 24. The following night, she sent a text message saying she was “hoping to hear back” from Cole about a decision that day. It was just a few hours before midnight, according to records reviewed by The Daily Beast.
“She was really, really selling me on it in a way that she just wanted me to say yes to add another person,” Cole said. He ultimately texted back that would commit to joining the campaign for the summer.
Cole’s initial excitement over the post—Warren was his first choice in the Democratic field of nearly two dozen contenders—soon dissipated, as he became increasingly concerned about the demands and benefits of the fellowship program.
In one email exchange, Cole asked Smith about the ease of getting around Des Moines without a car, which he made clear he would not have for the program. He was told that it was not necessary but “may require a fair amount of Ubers” and that he could “probably snag a good amount of rides from other fellows and/or staff here and there,” according to internal emails. Cole said he immediately became concerned with the potential costs associated with taking frequent Uber rides when he was not being paid.
Like Nendze, Cole was also concerned about the availability of housing while he volunteered for the Warren campaign. Those fears were assuaged somewhat when Anna Kucher, the campaign’s regional organizing director based in Iowa, sent an email sent to interns and fellows introducing herself on May 26.
About two weeks later, she sent a follow-up note. “I know you are all anxious to receive your housing details, and I will be sending out emails on a rolling basis based on when you submitted your request from Today – Thursday,” she wrote on June 10. “Don’t worry about not having a bed to sleep in, we have enough hosts confirmed and are just putting together the puzzle pieces of folks timeline here in IA, allergies, etc. Once you receive your host contact info, it’s very important that you reach out to the immediately within 24 hours to confirm logistics and details of your arrival!”
But six days before the fellowship was slated to begin, Cole said he had still not yet heard anything about his free supporter housing assignment. He said he ultimately felt relieved that he was offered a paid position at a firm elsewhere, which he decided to accept, after not hearing about the housing arrangements days before he was expected to relocate.
“Before you start a campaign you should have these basic processes done,” he said. “To be treated the way I was is disheartening.”
Just under a week after The Daily Beast contacted Warren’s campaign to detail multiple specific complaints from applicants offered volunteer fellowship positions, it appears someone decided the campaign’s most junior members could use rallying.
On July 24, Warren hosted a call featuring campaign manager Roger Lau to thank interns and fellows in her program. After the call, an outpouring of praise surfaced on social media, with about a dozen people tweeting their gratitude for the candidate’s outreach.