The National Labor Relations Board has filed a formal complaint against actor Sean Penn and his nonprofit disaster response organization over allegations that Penn threatened employees who criticized conditions at a COVID vaccination site -19 from Dodger Stadium.
The lawyer who laid the charges said that an internal email from Penn to his employees amounted to coercive conduct that could negatively affect young workers. Lawyers for the Oscar-winning actor insist the allegations are frivolous and baseless and call for their dismissal.
Penn’s nonprofit, Community Organized Relief Effort, or CORE, helped the city of Los Angeles at the mass vaccination site in January, winning praise for taking action at a critical time in the pandemic when the city was passing vaccination tests.
But Penn and CORE quickly came under scrutiny after two anonymous commentators left derogatory remarks on a New York Times bulletin board about working hours and food provisions at the site.
The comments prompted Penn to write an impassioned 2,200-word email in which he berated the commentators.
“And whoever wrote them, understand that in every cell of my body is vitriolic for how your actions reflect so harmfully on your siblings in arms,” Penn wrote in the email. , which was quickly leaked to The Times. “I have taken advice and will refrain here from using words I would otherwise choose to describe the character of your actions.”
The email also encouraged those who didn’t want to do the job to stop.
The words caught the attention of Los Angeles labor attorney Daniel B. Rojas, who asked the NLRB to investigate whether the comments posed an illegal threat.
Rojas said on Friday he was particularly concerned as many CORE employees at Dodger Stadium were young people and people of color.
“When I read Mr. Penn’s letter, I flagged the content as illegal and was annoyed by the idea that because of the brash conduct of an ultra-rich man, hundreds of young people in Los Angeles would be forced to believe that discussing wages or working conditions with third parties is incompatible with maintaining a job in the nonprofit sector, ”he said by email.
The NLRB complaint, dated Oct. 25, sided with Rojas, accusing Penn of “implicitly threatening” employees with retaliation and dismissal during his screeching.
But Penn and CORE push back. Their lawyer, Mathew Rosengart, confirmed on Friday that the group had turned down a settlement offer with the NLRB on the basis of the accusations “complete lack of legal basis”, and noted that no CORE employee or union had protested. against Penn’s statements.
“CORE and Mr. Penn are totally maintaining their email, and the actions of the NLRB to distract CORE from its crucial mission in a matter where no employee has been injured, are shameful,” he said. in a statement, adding that the group “will vigorously challenge and fight the groundless accusation in the legal system.
Rosengart said the comments in Penn’s email were “chosen” and did not take into account the larger context, which also included plenty of praise for CORE employees and vivid descriptions of Penn’s own distress during the deadly winter wave of COVID-19.
The email in question was a “rallying cry to CORE employees, thanking them profusely and expressing great pride in their hard work and life-saving emergency services,” he added.
The anonymous comments that angered Penn were attached to a New York Times article on the Dodger Stadium vaccination site and could have vanished into the internet ether without his response.
One commentator took issue with the description of the story of “Krispy Kreme for Breakfast and Subway for Lunch” to workers at the site.
“We don’t usually have breakfast, just coffee,” the commentator wrote. And lunch is ‘NOT’ Subway, but ‘the same old lettuce rolls up every day’.
The other, a self-proclaimed CORE staff member, said in order to comply with pressure from Mayor Eric Garcetti to shift site operations from COVID-19 testing to vaccinations, employees were working 18 hours a day, six days a week, “without the possibility of taking breaks,” Penn’s camp denied.
Penn’s attorneys also noted that CORE is working closely with and at the request of the city. Penn said in his email that the city had not ordered CORE staff to work excessive hours, but acknowledged that the “extraordinary staff and volunteers” were working to meet a “quantifiable urgent need” during a critical inflection point for the pandemic.
” You woke up. You did it. Not me. You all. And I’ll admit something. It made me cry. Not with a stupid sense of fatherly pride, just human pride in experiencing that people like you exist, ”he wrote.
Reached by phone, Rojas said he was unable to confirm whether the anonymous commentators were genuine CORE employees, but noted that “the NLRB viewed this as an issue and decided it was wrong. not important “, because the employees received his e-mail.
Penn, a polarizing Hollywood figure, founded CORE after the destructive and deadly 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The group continues to work in Haiti and has since provided humanitarian assistance following hurricanes in North Carolina, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.
During the pandemic, the group helped manage dozens of COVID-19 testing sites across the country.
CORE relies on a small amount of government funding and charitable donations, including a $ 30 million contribution from Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, CORE co-founder and CEO Ann Lee said in an interview. Last year. Penn takes no pay from the group, according to his federal tax returns.
Rojas said he hoped CORE would “reconsider its position, deal with a bruised ego and settle the case,” noting that the remedy for the breach did not involve a monetary settlement but rather an agreement to cease and desist. new violations, an official said. statement of wrongdoing and notice to affected employees.
“Put simply: I filed a complaint because it is a protected activity, and not a ‘generalized cyber-whine’, to discuss your salary or your working conditions with the public” , said Rojas. “This is especially true when an employer – like CORE – depends on public funds. These are our taxes at work.
Yet Rosengart also called the accusations a waste of federal resources and taxpayer dollars and said it distracted CORE from its mission. The group has helped administer nearly 6 million COVID-19 tests and 2.5 million vaccinations in Los Angeles and around the world with a focus on underserved communities, he said.
Jennifer Abruzzo, NLRB General Council, said in a statement Friday that while CORE “does important and admirable work, like all employers, it must respect the rights of its employees under the national labor law. labor relations to engage in concerted protected activities, such as discussing matters of mutual interest with one another and raising workplace concerns to the public, federal agencies or other third parties.
A hearing before an NLRB administrative judge is scheduled for January in Los Angeles.
Times editors Maya Lau and Laura Nelson contributed to this report.