ATLANTA — An organization co-founded by a Hollywood star is accused of not paying its workers.
Community Organized Relief Effort, or CORE, operated vaccine clinics in Georgia as COVID-19 wreaked havoc on communities. When the call for help to vaccinate Georgians rang, Marc Solomon answered.
“I saw an opportunity to do more and that’s exactly what I did. I did more,” said the 31-year-old EMT who landed a job in February 2021 working at CORE.
The crisis response organization administered more than 2.6 million COVID vaccines in Georgia and seven other states during the height of the pandemic.
According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, CORE has received $3.7 million in federal aid for operating its vaccination clinics in the state since April 5, 2022.
It was co-founded by Academy Award-winning actor Sean Penn. Over the past decade, CORE has responded to disasters across the world, including earthquakes in Haiti, the war in Ukraine and COVID clinics across the U.S. – hiring an army of staff along the way.
Solomon said he sometimes worked long hours as a vaccinator for CORE, often finding himself in libraries, schools and nursing homes.
After his paychecks didn’t reflect overtime, he asked his supervisor why.
“I said, ‘Am I being paid over-time for all of these hours worked?’ And they said, ‘There is no overtime for contract employees,” said Solomon.
A law firm representing Solomon believes CORE intentionally misclassified him, and potentially hundreds of others, as contractors to avoid paying them overtime.
CORE representatives declined interview requests. In court filings, its lawyers point to a document titled, "Independent Contractor Agreement" that Solomon and others signed, which they argue proves workers are not employees and not eligible for overtime.
The contract requires any dispute employees have must be handled through binding arbitration. That means, a judge doesn’t determine the resolution, an appointed arbitrator makes the decision, instead.
“It keeps disputes of a public nature out of public eye. People can’t then understand what’s actually happening in the workforce,” said Charles Bridgers, an Atlanta attorney who represents Solomon.
The binding arbitration agreement also means Bridgers and his law firm cannot file a collective action, that would allow it to seek damages from multiple CORE employees who are potentially owned overtime.
“I think it’s important for the public to understand that you cannot agree with your employer to be treated as an independent contractor when the law requires that you be an employee,” said Bridgers.
Other CORE complaints
Solomon is not the first CORE worker who has accused the company and its famous founder of mistreatment.
A pending lawsuit filed in California accuses CORE of labor violations, including not paying overtime, failing to reimburse workers for business expenses, and not giving employees time to eat.
The November 2021 complaint seeks class-action status. It’s filed on behalf of Brittani Powell, a former employee. Calls and emails to her attorneys were not returned to 11Alive. CORE denies all of the claims in the lawsuit.
A few months later, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed a complaint against Penn for allegedly threatening employees who criticized their working conditions at CORE.
On January 29, 2021, Penn sent a company-wide email responding to two anonymous CORE workers who posted on a New York Times messaging board complaining about long hours and the food provided to them. The four-page email scolded the employees and called on them and others to resign if they were unwilling to get on board with the organization’s mission.
“We have a job to do, and I beg those who are unwilling to do it, to quit,” said Penn in the email. “And to whoever authored these, understand that in every cell of my body is a vitriol for the way your actions reflect so harmfully upon your brothers and sisters in arms.”
NLRB said Penn’s words violated the law.
Attorney Daniel Rojas notified the board about Penn’s letter, which led to the lawsuit.
“I thought the response was inappropriate, potentially unlawful,” said the Los Angeles-based lawyer, who specializes in labor law.
CORE attorneys disagreed. In a letter to 11Alive, it called Penn’s letter a “rallying cry to CORE’s employees, profusely thanking them and expressing great pride for their hard work and lifesaving, emergency services.”
CORE also called NLRB’s lawsuit meritless and a waste of taxpayer money. “[It’s] based upon a few words cherry-picked from that email, a Los Angeles lawyer representing himself and not any victims or CORE employees,” said in the statement.
Rojas, who once worked for the federal entity, said the agency is doing what it’s charged to do.
“This is the mission of this agency and it’s doing its job,” said Rojas during an interview with 11Alive over Zoom. “Doing good work doesn’t excuse you from violating employees’ rights.”
If found in violation, CORE would face few consequences for its actions. A financial penalty isn’t even on the table. NLRB offered to settle the dispute if it agreed to notify employees about their rights, but CORE declined.
A hearing on the board’s complaint is scheduled for later this summer.