Petition gatherers hurt in Florida GOP crackdown on constitutional amendments

Under a new elections law that went into effect in July, ballot initiatives are no longer allowed to pay petition gatherers for each signature they collect. This makes it hard on the petition gatherers.
An Avon Park man signs a petition to oppose the proposed Illegal Immigration Relief Act ordinance Saturday in front of Avon Park City Hall in 2006.
An Avon Park man signs a petition to oppose the proposed Illegal Immigration Relief Act ordinance Saturday in front of Avon Park City Hall in 2006. [ Times archives ]
Published Jan. 10, 2020

When William Mignoli moved from West Palm Beach to the Lakeland area for a new job as a paid petition gatherer for the 2020 citizen ballot initiatives, he was feeling optimistic that he’d benefit off the election year and save a little money in the process.

Mignoli, a 58-year-old Army veteran, first moved from New York to West Palm Beach in August to take care of his aging father. He said he hoped to get licensed to sell real estate in Florida as he did in New York. But the seed money he brought to Florida wasn’t enough to get him through the process, and he heard petition work paid well.

He stumbled upon Petition Partners, a national petition gathering firm based in Arizona, which set up shop in Tampa running petitions and boasting minimum pay of $15 an hour “with the opportunity to quickly advance to more than $18 an hour based on performance,” according to its website.

But Mignoli says the new gig hasn’t lived up to his expectations.

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Under a new elections law that went into effect in July, ballot initiatives are no longer allowed to pay petition gatherers for each signature they collect. Instead, they may pay them a salary or an hourly wage. The bill died in the middle of last year’s legislative session but was resurrected in the closing hours and amended onto another bill at the urging of the new governor.

According to pay stubs and interviews conducted by the Miami Herald, Petition Partners is incentivizing workers to bring in more signatures by setting a productivity standard.

And workers like Mignoli are losing out.

According to pay stubs provided to the Herald, he is being paid $91 to $404 per week, which equates to 6 to 33 hours of weekly work.

But most weeks, Mignoli says he works 30 to 50 hours.

He, alongside other registered petition gatherers, was told that he could only bill for hours where he got at least seven signatures per hour, he said. For example, when he worked 25 hours gathering 77 signatures last month, he was told he could only bill for 10 of those hours.

Every week, he and others drive to the regional coordinators in Tampa to turn in their physical petitions, where staff match up the amount of petitions to hours logged. If signature gatherers log fewer than seven signatures per hour worked, they can be fired.

“It happened to someone when I was turning in petitions for the week yesterday in Tampa,” Mignoli said.

Petition Partners CEO Drew Chavez, who employs about 700 paid petition gatherers in Florida, said the Arizona-based firm fires many employees each week based on productivity standards.

“This is just like any other job in America,” he said.

The hourly wage rule was meant to curb petition gatherers from forging signatures to make an extra buck, as they might if they were being paid per signature.

The new law makes paying petition gatherers by the signature a first-degree misdemeanor.

Rep. Jamie Grant, a Tampa Republican who filed the original bill, said there has been “some gross fraud” and that paying people hourly would limit it. He added that local officials also need to do a better job checking the legitimacy of the signatures turned in.

Two people have filed election fraud complaints about petition activities in two years, according to the Florida Department of State.

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While the hourly wage rule may have been meant to get rid of any “fraud” in the system, it also makes the process more expensive for ballot initiative campaigns that now must pay an hourly wage instead of a price for a product — the signatures.

In November, Petition Partners shut down its timekeeping app in what Mignoli called “a purge” and only invited people back who were “billing the right amount.”

“They terminated a bunch of people after that,” he said. “I was standing in a room with people who said their app was turned off.”

Mignoli said gathering seven signatures in an hour is harder than it sounds to the uninitiated. He will stand in the hot sun outside libraries and Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles offices all day and collect just a dozen signatures on the petitions he carries. In the formula of seven signatures equals an hour of pay, that’s about an hour-and-a-half or $22.50 instead of $60 to $120 for four to eight hours of total work time at $15 per hour.

While the company is paying petition gatherers hourly, Mignoli said he feels like he’s being paid per petition, since he isn’t being paid for the hours he works unsuccessfully gathering signatures.

Piece rate pay, or paying someone per unit, is commonly used with farm workers and used to be standard pay for workers in the garment industry. With that kind of work, minimum productivity is a standard. Up until the new election law passed, that was how petition workers were paid.

While federal law says piece rate plans are OK, employers still must pay workers at least minimum wage for each hour that they work. If they don’t collect enough pieces (or signatures, in this case) to add up to minimum wage, the employer must pay them the balance. Alternatively, the employer can fire the person for lack of productivity.

Because state law now prohibits piece rate work for this particular activity, the workers technically must be paid at least minimum wage for all hours that they work.

Mignoli says he and others he meets doing this job can’t live on what they make. For the first time in his life, Mignoli qualifies for food stamps. He’s falling behind on rent, and worries he won’t be able to pay for his apartment for January.

“I never had to ask for anything before,” he said. “I really thought this was going to be something. But this is what I could find right now.”

Mignoli is currently carrying the Make it Legal Florida petition to legalize recreational marijuana.

Chavez, who founded Arizona-based Petition Partners, said there is nothing wrong with setting productivity standards for employees. The employment structure is used across the country, he said, but mostly in states like Arizona, California and Florida. He said only about 15% of workers work full 40-hour weeks.

“We offer folks a really good wage, and a really good way to make a living,” he said. “But if you don’t put the fries in a basket, you’re going to get fired. “

Chavez denied that employees were told to alter the amount of hours they submit so as to mold to the productivity standards. He also said employee systems like the new one Florida adopted actually causes more fraudulent behavior among petition gatherers.

“Most of the folks we let go for fraud are trying to get enough signatures to keep their job,” he said. “You can’t show up after 40 hours and have one signature. You have to have productivity standards.

The chairman of Make it Legal Florida, the petition for adult use marijuana, said in a statement that he hires out petition gatherers with the understanding that they are following the law. He did not comment further on pay issues at Petition Partners’ Tampa operation.

“We expect every vendor we work with to properly manage their own business structure in accordance to Florida law,” said Nick Hansen, a former lobbyist for the medical marijuana company MedMen.

Make it Legal Florida has spent more than $5.1 million on Petition Partners’ services.

Grant, who represents parts of Tampa, said the allegations detailed to him by a Miami Herald reporter are “troubling” and that he plans on taking a “deep dive” into the situation.

“The fact that it’s in my backyard is a little personal,” he said. “Anybody’s who’s breaking the law to amend our Constitution ought to face every single punishment afforded in state statute.”

Grant said “there are few things that make me more mad” then affronts to the state constitution. As a business owner, he “loves performance-based things,” he says, but Petition Partners’ policy doesn’t make sense to him. He hopes the local supervisors of election take note.

“If someone can equip me with evidence that people are thumbing their nose at the laws of this state, I will use everything at my disposal to hold them accountable,” he said. “We’re supposed to be ensuring the law is upheld, but the reality is that all of this hullabaloo all boils down to local officials doing their damn job.”

While the state Division of Elections has no authority to investigate employment practices, it said in a statement that it is open to taking election fraud complaints through its website with regard to petition activities.

The department will forward findings to the Office of Statewide Prosecution or to the State Attorney for the judicial circuit in which the alleged violation occurred, a spokesman said.