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Taking vacation time — on the campaign trail

State Capitol, Sacramento. (Photo: David Monniaux)

Summer and the Thanksgiving-Christmas holidays – prime time to take vacations and relax.

But in the intense, politics-driven culture of the Capitol, by far the most popular period to sign up for vacation or leave surrounds the general election, when the staff members’ bosses may be up for reelection. Then, some two-thirds of the Assembly’s work force put in for at least some amount of vacation time, according to Assembly figures for 2014 reviewed by Capitol Weekly.

For staff members, it’s an opportunity to show loyalty and being a team player, and to build a resume for a new job.

A similar environment exists in the Senate, staffers say, although it is arguably more intense in the Assembly, where every seat in the 80-member house is up every two years. Senators serve four-year terms, with half the 40-member house up for election in any given even-numbered year. Special elections to fill vacancies, such as the fierce battle in the 7th Senate District, also draw staffs from various offices.

The Assembly’s written rules bar legislative staff members from working on political campaigns during their regular office hours. But many will volunteer on their own time, or during their vacation or leave, to knock on doors, work telephones, organize campaign volunteers, distribute yard signs in the district and do other chores.

“It’s their own time and they can do what they want, but it’s not really ‘volunteering.’ It’s basically a fact of life that the staff is expected to work on campaigns, and the rationale is if they are using their own time, then there’s no conflict,” said a veteran legislative staffer who, like a number of current and former Capitol workers who were interviewed, spoke only on condition of anonymity.

They might be working on their own boss’ campaign, or they might not: In tough, key races, staffers from several offices come in to help out. The party caucuses help shape the effort. For staff members, it’s an opportunity to show loyalty and being a team player, and to build a resume for a new job when a lawmaker is termed out and a new one comes in looking to build a staff.

Not all is politics, however.

“I think there’s a mixed bag. Some people come to work here because they have politics in their blood, and others have policy in their blood,” said Assemblymember Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, the chair of the Assembly Rules Committee, the powerful panel that manages the Assembly’s operations. “You can’t universally say folks want to go on leave to work on their bosses’ campaigns.”

The Nov. 1-15 figure of 770 is the highest for any of the year’s two-week pay periods

Data detailing the Assembly’s 2014 vacation and leave time for roughly 1,190 employees shows that nearly two-thirds of the Assembly’s workforce, 770 staffers, put in for at least a minimal amount of vacation time during the period of Nov. 1-15, which covered the Nov. 4 general election. On the average, about 313 put in for vacation in any other two-week pay period during the entire year.

The figures do not show the number of those took full or partial vacations, nor the amount of time taken, but only the raw number of those who used some amount of vacation time. The Assembly officially does not provide ‘comp time’ to employees, although that rule is flexible, according to a number of current and former staffers.

“You get a young staffer with two weeks of vacation and he has to spend it on a campaign, he’s not happy. They’ll (managers) try to get him some time off later, when it’s quiet,” one former Capitol worker said, “although they are not supposed to.”

The Nov. 1-15 figure of 770 is the highest for any of the year’s two-week pay periods. From the middle of October through the end of the month, the final stretch of the general election campaign, about 508 staffers reported taking minimal vacation time.

For the rest of the year, the figures ranged from 135 during the final two weeks of August – when lawmakers return from their summer recess — to 516 from July 15-31, a traditional vacation stretch when lawmakers leave for their month-long break.

Taking an unpaid leave of absence to work on campaigns also is common. It’s known as LWOP – Leave With Out Pay.

The number of people seeking some amount of vacation time during the general election period from Oct. 15 through November 15 was 1,278. The next-highest, 916, was during the month of July. During the traditional holiday period, from the final two weeks of November through the end of the year, about 825 people requested vacation time.

“The problem is that it can be very difficult to police because the dividing line between constituent service and campaign work can be very blurry,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College and a former staff member of the New York Legislature.

“The solution, as it is to a lot of things, is transparency,” he added. “I worked in New York Legislature, and they had a similar practice that was even less transparent than California — which is saying something.”

Taking an unpaid leave of absence to work on campaigns also is common. It’s known as LWOP – Leave With Out Pay.

Staff workers on unpaid leave may go off the Capitol payroll for weeks or months — for the June-through-November election cycle, for example — while others may begin in September or later and continue through the election. During the period, they typically are paid by the campaigns. After the campaign is over, they may return to the Capitol staff.

“One thing to keep mind is that people who go on leave without pay are not accruing any vacation or pay, so they try to be really careful about how much leave without pay they take,” said Debra Gravert, the Assembly’s administrative officer.

The median number of leave requests was 18.5 for any two-week pay period during the year. As with vacation time, the figures do not show the length of time of leaves of absence, only that at least a minimal amount of leave was taken.

But in the final two weeks of October, the level of leave requests more than quintupled, to 95. During the first two weeks of November, leaves were granted to 57 people, about three times the average, while during the first two weeks of October, 78 people were given leave.

“We got into this because we love politics, and it’s fun to go out and get the campaign bug out of your system,” said one former staff member, who noted that it was exhilarating to go do battle for your beliefs and friends.

Gordon agreed.

“The capitol community is a small community. There are a lot of friendships, a lot of relationships…”


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