Column: As an employer, Sean Penn’s emotional outburst was dumb, but the NLRB’s response is dumber

Sean Penn and Gov. Gavin Newsom bump elbows
Actor Sean Penn, left, greets Gov. Gavin Newsom Jan. 15 at Dodger Stadium as Mayor Eric Garcetti looks on.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Oh dear. I find it distressing when I agree with an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, an outfit whose pro-corporation, anti-tax opinion shop generally leaves me feeling queasy.

However, the other day, in its typically tongue-in-cheek way, the Journal editorial board offered sympathy to the actor and social activist Sean Penn, who has found himself in a silly pickle with the National Labor Relations Board.

The NLRB, wrote the Journal, “seems to be unfairly targeting the Hollywood admirer of Hugo Chavez for exercising his First Amendment speech rights.”

I agree.

Penn, as you may know, is the chairman and co-founder of the Community Organized Relief Effort, or CORE, which hired hundreds of workers to help with the months-long COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Dodger Stadium. CORE, a nonprofit, was founded in 2010 to provide earthquake relief in Haiti and has expanded its mission. Penn takes no salary, according to tax filings.

Opinion Columnist

Robin Abcarian

The NLRB is investigating whether Penn threatened his workers after he wrote an angry internal email in January in response to some mild, anonymous criticism of working conditions at Dodger Stadium in the comments section of a glowing New York Times story about the vaccination effort at the site.

Two anonymous comments set him off. One took issue with a line in the New York Times story about workers getting Krispy Kreme doughnuts for breakfast and Subway sandwiches for lunch. (“We do NOT get Krispy Kreme for breakfast. In fact, we usually DON’T get breakfast, just coffee. And the lunch is NOT Subway. It’s the same old lettuce wraps every day.” I thought this was a tedious example of millennial whining, but the commenter added, “It’s free lunch … so I’m not complaining.”)

The second, however, accused CORE of violating Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules because some staffers worked 18-hour days, six days a week.

Penn responded with a vehement 2,200-word email to the entire CORE staff.


“I am directly reaching out to each and every one of you to express a grave concern,” wrote the actor. “As a disaster response organization, each of our first accountabilities to ourselves must accept that our work can never ever be compared like the apples to oranges of other workplaces.”

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It is perhaps a curse of the world’s most self-regarding profession: No matter how rich and famous you are, no matter how much praise you receive for the many good deeds you do, even the most insignificant pinprick will pierce your thin, thin skin and wound you to the, ah, core.

But then Penn seemed to go a step too far.

“Any of us who might find themselves predisposed to a culture of complaint, have a much simpler avenue than broad-based cyber whining,” he wrote. “It’s called quitting. Quit for CORE. Quit for your colleagues who won’t quit. Quit for your fellow human beings who deeply recognize that this is a moment in time.”

The overheated rhetoric raises questions: Is this simply the ranting of a narcissistic, overemotional boss, or a threat to low-level employees by a powerful, monied employer? And — sorry, can’t help it — why is Penn such a terrible writer?

Los Angeles labor attorney Daniel B. Rojas happened to see Penn’s email and thought it was egregious enough that he forwarded it to the NLRB, which has filed a formal complaint alleging worker intimidation.


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A hearing before an administrative law judge in Los Angeles has been scheduled for January, reports my colleague Hayley Smith.

The whole kerfuffle is a waste of time. Apart from the problematic record keeping of Los Angeles firefighters who received a bonanza in overtime pay, the Dodger Stadium effort was magnificent, at one point vaccinating 12,000 people a day.

One of my dearest friends, a woman with two adult children, spent months working for CORE at the stadium. We spoke frequently about her job. I cannot identify her because she signed a nondisclosure agreement as a condition of employment. (She specifically remembers a clause about not discussing Penn or his family.)

She earned $20 an hour and $30 an hour for overtime. Overtime shifts, or “doubles,” she told me, were coveted, and the slots filled quickly. All staffers were offered health insurance.

Every day, she said, free food and beverages flowed, including many hot meals — shepherd’s pie, chicken Parmesan — prepared by World Central Kitchen, chef José Andrés’ charitable organization.

“Treats would show up,” she said. “A vegan, plant-based burger truck came. Or, suddenly, there would be Krispy Kreme or Dunkin’ Donuts. Sometimes pastries. There were almost always granola bars.”

She met and became friendly with many young people, most of whom were grateful for the work. “But there were some that I would consider entitled, complaining about the free food. I’m like, ‘If you don’t like it, bring your own lunch, kids!’”

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When it rained, she said, CORE offered umbrellas and waterproof gear, and when it became unbearably cold, as it did on many a winter morning, CORE gave out heated vests and offered big tents to warm up in. “As soon as people said they were freezing,” she said, “they would move us into the tents.”

“The job itself was not difficult,” she said. She moved cones and waved cars into traffic lines. She filled out COVID-19 vaccination record cards and screened folks for allergies. She walked people to the bathroom and watched over the newly vaccinated to make sure they had no adverse reactions. Sometimes her magnificent people skills were pressed into action. “Occasionally,” she said, “we dealt with angry people due to some very long wait times.”

She took the job to make a difference at a time when so many felt powerless in the face of a brutal pandemic.

“We felt we were saving lives,” she said. “It was a lovely, humanitarian moment, and a ton of us felt we were there to help our fellow Angelenos, who were super grateful. I was there for the mission.”

Eventually, she left Dodger Stadium and joined a team of CORE staffers who traveled the city as part of the Disabled and Homebound Population project, knocking on doors to offer vaccinations to people who could not get to vaccination sites. Each day was full of drama and tedium; she saw a man shoot a gun into the air in anger and often came home devastated by the poverty and loneliness she witnessed. She rescued a mangy kitten and has nursed it back to health.

When some of the younger people she worked with complained about the monotony of the $10 Starbucks or Ralphs gift cards they were given each day to use for lunch, CORE accommodated them by putting a $10 per diem in their paychecks instead.

Come on, NLRB — don’t you have something better to do with your time?