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Florida Democratic Party accused by former staff of not following its core values

“We just want the party to follow its own values,” one former staffer said.
Terrie Rizzo, former chair of the Florida Democratic Party.
Terrie Rizzo, former chair of the Florida Democratic Party. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Feb. 4
Updated Feb. 4

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Democratic Party styles itself as the party that protects the health care of workers and is the champion of their advocates — labor unions.

Yet the party’s treatment of its own employees on those two bedrock issues is coming under fire.

In December, the party celebrated the fact that its staff had joined a labor union for the first time. Then-party chair Terrie Rizzo said then that the move underscored “our commitment to working people, including our own employees.”

But just one month later, the party, under the new leadership of Executive Director Marcus L. Dixon and Chairman Manny Diaz, laid off 15 employees. Those out of a job included all but two of the employees covered under the union’s collective bargaining agreement.

Many of the employees saw the firings coming. Political parties routinely cut staff during non-election years, when fundraising tends to be harder.

But according to a interviews with half a dozen current or former employees with the party, the way the layoffs were handled has some questioning the party’s dedication to its own ideals.

Employees told the Times/Herald that the abrupt terminations resulted in organizational chaos. Exit interviews were done belatedly or not at all. Departed staffers had to field questions from the overwhelmed few who remained on the payroll.

Tania Ingram, the party’s former deputy training director, said she doesn’t know where to send her company laptop.

Related: The latest change to the Florida Democratic Party: They’re unionizing

“The layoffs were handled unprofessionally,” the party’s former chief technology officer Dale Gibler said. “It showed no leadership.”

As Politico first reported, union employees were initially misled by the party into thinking they would have their health insurance covered for a period after their employment ended. A letter that went out to staff said “your healthcare benefits will continue through February 28, 2021.”

In fact, the party, which was deep in debt, had its employee health insurance cut off Nov. 30. The problem has since been rectified, according to emails obtained by the Times/Herald. Insurance claims dating back to the cancellation will be honored, an email to former staff said.

Ingram said it took news coverage for the party to pay its employees’ health care bills.

“We’re going to look like disgruntled employees calling out the party that we love. We just want the party to follow its own values,” Ingram said.

In a statement, Dixon addressed the allegations. The party was working to correct the health care situation before it was publicly reported, he said. The new regime did not intentionally mislead employees by saying they would continue to have health care; senior staff only learned of the lapsed coverage after the layoffs. Laid-off employees got calls from higher-ups to explain the layoffs and walk them through the transition, he contended. The party’s union contract is still intact. The cuts were simply a cost-saving measure, and the party hopes to bring employees back once it’s on more solid financial footing.

“When we came in, we made very hard and quick short-term decisions to stabilize the party. That included layoffs but also included ending our office lease and ending consultant and service contracts that weren’t critical needs,” Dixon said in a statement. “I understand the frustration with the layoffs from staff who worked hard for the party and were not at fault.”

The financial picture indeed appears dire. According to filings with the Federal Election Commission, the Democratic Executive Committee of Florida had just about $60,000 cash on hand at the end of 2020. The party had about $869,000 in debts. Those figures were reported at the end of a year in which Florida Democrats suffered political losses up and down the ballot, including a three-point drubbing in the presidential race.

Wendy Williams, the former deputy director of party affairs, said the lack of communication to staff from Diaz, the new chair, fueled the rumor mill in a way that became unhealthy for the workplace.

“If these mass layoffs were due to the financial situation and not cleaning house, then why not hold a staff meeting and be up front with folks?” Williams said.

The layoffs also made some staffers question the party’s commitment to its staff union. A Twitter account which purportedly represents the Florida Democratic Party union has savaged the new leadership in recent days.

“Consider this historic staff union officially busted,” the account, @FDPUnion, tweeted Jan. 30, many of the terminated employees’ last day. (In a Twitter direct message, the person behind the account said it is run by “former staff.” That person declined to say who exactly runs the account.)

The party now has eight staffers, two of whom are covered under the union’s collective bargaining agreement.

Even before the January firings, party leadership under Executive Director Juan Peñalosa and Rizzo was far less receptive to union organization than they appeared in public, Ingram said. The negotiations dragged on for months, complicated in part by the pandemic, the election — and, Ingram said, by a lack of cooperation from the party.

Williams said she believes leadership’s commitment to unionizing was sincere.

Peñalosa declined to comment for this story. Rizzo could not be reached for comment. Representatives with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 824, with which the Florida Democratic Party staff union has an agreement, did not respond to requests for comment.

“We’re the party of the people and we need to set an example,” Gibler said. “This is not a great example.”

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story published online incorrectly stated the number of staffers at the Florida Democratic Party. It is eight.)