First published June 24, 2020 on Communities Digital News.
WASHINGTON: For Carmel Foster, her story isn’t just about having an affair with married California legislator Phil Ting (D). Between 2017 and 2019, Foster felt she was becoming the victim of political puppetry. That her story was being used to promote AB5 Gig Worker laws. That her relationship with Ting was being manipulated for other purposes.
Assemblyman Phil Ting’s purposes with Foster included rallying her support for the Assembly Bill 2314: “Private Home Domestic Worker” legislation.
Ting, however, was not alone in his duplicity. Others were also used to manipulate Foster during a vulnerable time into becoming, as she puts it, California’s “poster child of domestic workers”.
Manipulated by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and AB5 supportive unions
Foster’s testimony for Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez’s AB5 was stage-managed through the California Domestic Workers Coalition (CADWC) under the umbrella of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), and the California Federation of Labor.
Foster says, the goal of AB5 was not to “help the actual worker”, but to “ultimately enrich these organizations.”
On December 6, 2016, Ting was sworn in for his third term in the California Assembly
After his re-election, Ting rose to the challenge of six committees, including Business and Professions, Legislative Budget (where he is Vice-Chair), and the Budget Committee, which he chairs. These are the very committees that would not only review but have the power to push forward bills like AB2314, and AB5.
While Ting wrestled with his budget blueprint and postured with his “Bowtie Caucus”, Foster was living in a homeless shelter. It is ironic that as Ting’s paramour bounced in and out of homelessness, he chose to champion AB932, which would give San Francisco flexibility to build homeless shelters and transitional housing for homeless residents.
Assemblymen’s “Bowtie Caucus”. Phillip Chen (R-55), whose image Ting used on the WYP dating site is to the left. Photo: CA-19 Assembly Website
“The funny part is, when I was in a homeless shelter that’s the only time Phil did not contact me,” she said. “I was there for maybe 2-3 months, maybe less. I didn’t come to America to be in a homeless shelter. This is what the courts, this judge [the Family Law divorce judge Christine Carringer] wanted for me. I said, you know what? I’d rather go clean toilets.” – Carmel Foster
Carmel Foster – willing to work to evade homelessness
Foster discovered the Handy app in early 2017. Handy was a new platform where users could book cleaning services and handyman work. She decided to become an independent contractor.
“So, I got onto the Handy app and started gaining clients, cleaning houses—this is when he started contacting me again.”
While Foster enjoyed the flexibility Handy offered, she did not care for the way the rating system dictated a sliding scale in her wages. That scale being dependent upon whether someone rated her work high or low. She also didn’t like the fact that she could not take her good reviews and ratings with her when she wished to work on other platforms, like Thumbtack and Uber.
It wasn’t long before she had already put the platforms aside and started focusing on other ways to market herself.
Carmel Foster becomes a spokesperson for the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA)
Even though she had only worked for Handy for a short time, she would end up testifying about her experience at an April 2019 Labor Committee hearing in support of Asm. Gonzalez’s AB5. Foster says her testimony was scripted and crafted by the NDWA, and the fact that the testimony was printed on the organization’s letterhead appears to support this.
There is also an email to Foster from Rocio Avila, Policy Director NDWA about said testimony. Note her intention to “approve” Foster’s testimony:
Before this, however, circumstances would maneuver Foster into work for a private client, and lead to a resulting wage-theft claim.
Foster offered a position with the Constantino-Roelandts
In 2016, the Democratic National Committee contacted Foster out of the blue to work as a temporary field organizer on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Then in May of 2017, Foster received an email from Maria Constantino-Roelandts, the wife of CEO, entrepreneur, and philanthropist William Roelandts.
In less than a year, Foster had received another serendipitous offer seemingly from out of nowhere. The first being the invitation to work on the Clinton campaign. The second to work for the Roelandts.
Now retired, William Roelandts had built an 8,000-square-foot home in the Silicon Valley. Having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Roelandts needed a caregiver and an assistant. Constantino-Roelandts also required a house cleaner and a cook.
“He sits on a board—many, many boards,” Foster said. “His wife is Mexican, she is 20 years younger. When they hired me, they owned a couple of foundations. The type of foundations they own, it’s mainly for Mexican children, Mexican girls, and runaways. The one that I know for sure is called Heritage Home. So, I go there, my job was to clean, cook, take him to doctor’s appointments, accompany them as an administrator to events, make dinners.”
Because of the Roelandts’ high profile, Foster had additional duties of airport trips, managing the landscaping staff, and as a cook for political guests.
Foster was at first happy to have a roof over her head and to be making a steady salary. However, she came to find irregularities in what was expected of her. She said she was required to work 13-hour days, and that Constantino-Roelandts would ask for her to change focus or to be available after her work hours.
“I cried so much working there, I experienced so much. Working long hours, dealing with them calling me at all hours of the night,” she said. “I wanted to leave, but I was concerned about what would happen to Mr. Roelandts.”
Meanwhile, Ting collected awards for Climate Champion from The Utility Reform Network, and the Legislator of the Year from the California Federation of Teachers.
Foster says that Ting lent a sympathetic ear during her time with the Roelandts, but did nothing to help alleviate her dilemma.
“He would always ask me questions that kind of forced me to answer. I didn’t see this as a problem,” she said. “There’s some form of bond, some form of closeness, whatever he asks me I always would tell him. So, he knew maybe more than what he should have known. He knew about what my challenges was with Maria, he knew about the abuse that was going on, he knew all that.”
Foster decided to do a Google search and happened upon the California Domestic Workers Coalition (CADWC). She filled out the contact form requesting assistance with her situation.
California Domestic Workers’ Coalition: Astroturf instead of grassroots
CADWC is part of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). Co-founded in 2007 by Ai-jen Poo, NDWA is an advocacy organization for domestic workers, caregivers, and eldercare workers.
While the organization appears “grassroots” to the untrained eye, according to Influence Watch, NDWA has heavy labor union ties:
“NDWA is funded by left-wing foundations and labor unions, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the AFL-CIO, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).”
Influence Watch also says,
“NDWA has been associated with the so-called ‘Alt-Labor’ movement, a network of informal organizing entities known as “worker centers” which support the labor union agenda and have been identified by national labor unions as a path to reverse long-term declines in workforce unionization.”
So there appears to be a connection between what Influence Watch states are the goals of NDWA, and the intended goal of AB5, which Asm. Gonzalez revealed from her personal Twitter account:
At the time, Foster was grasping for a lifeline, and CADWC appeared to be that. She soon received a reply from her online inquiry.
“A lady replied back: ‘I’m from California Domestic Worker’s Coalition and we’re going to help you! This is exactly what we do! You have rights, you’re a domestic worker,’ ” Foster said. “ ‘We’re going to meet with our attorney tomorrow, we’re going to get on this immediately.’ ”
Foster met with Sarah Leadem, then Director of Rights Enforcement and Education for CADWC, and Scott Hochberg then of Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto. A workers’ rights attorney, Hochberg was two years out of law school, fresh from Harvard where he was awarded a Skadden Fellow so he could pursue a career in worker’s rights.
According to Leadem’s Linked in profile, she cut her teeth first as an organizing intern, then, as an organizer and union representative from 2012-2015 for AFSCME Local 3299 in the Bay Area.
Foster posited that Leadem and Hochberg told her she had a valid wage-theft claim.
“They said, you were paid $5 an hour based on the pay stubs and the proof I gave them. They said I was basically exploited, and that the other people at Maria’s were exploited too.”
They asked Foster for the names of these other people. “I told them, No, I won’t give out other people’s personal information!”
Leadem and Hochberg wanted her to take pictures of the Roelandts’ office and home environment.
“I thought I had just explained!” she said. “This man had been good to me, and I am worried about him, and now you want me to breach his confidentiality? I’m not willing to do that.”
Foster expressed that if she took this route, she would not have a place to live.
Both Leadem and Hochberg stated she should not have to stay at a place where she was under duress; that it was against the law for the Roelandts to retaliate if she chose to leave.
Foster’s wage theft claim was filed on September 25, 2017, after it was determined that she was owed $22,000 in back wages. While she waited for the court proceedings to move forward, she tried to find new lodgings and work running into obstacles on both fronts.
She lamented over this in an email to Leadem and Hochberg, asking for their assistance:
Foster said that Leadem then offered to put her up at her own home in Oakland. Foster was caught between a rock of wanting to help William Roelandts’, and a hard place of needing to be stable and free from the stressful environment. She decided to accept Leadem’s offer.
The Unions Push Back
In an article in the California Globe referencing a past article, political journalist Katy Grimes also covered Foster’s assertion that she stayed in the home of an employee of CADWC. Ms. Grimes alerted this writer that she received an email from Kimberly Alvarenga, Director at the organization, alleging that this information was not accurate.
However, a text chain between Foster and Leadem showed that Leadem did indeed make the offer and supplied Foster with her home address. Foster claims she stayed with Leadem for four days between October 31 and November 3, 2017, and after that period, Leadem arranged for Foster to stay at another location.
While Foster felt grateful for Leadem’s offer of lodging, she was unaware that part of the price was sharing her story with Mexican domestic workers.
“While I stayed with Sarah, she would keep taking me to a place in the Mission District to talk to all these Mexican illegal people,” Foster said. “She speaks in Spanish, I speak in English, and she would say, this is a lady who works for a very high profile [client], she’s going to bring a case that is going to protect all of you!”
“I was happy to help because I was really worried about the health and welfare of other domestic workers,” Foster said. “I wanted to make sure that what happened to me wouldn’t happen to other immigrants. I always felt sad for these women working in private homes.”
Foster’s passion and heart for domestic workers like herself made her an attractive find to the CADWC’s umbrella organization: The National Domestic Worker’s Alliance (NDWA).
In April of 2018, Leadem introduced Foster to Tina Vu Pham, Gig Worker organizer for the national arm.
In Pham’s reply email, she wrote that she planned to arrange a call with NDWA’s policy director Rocio Avila. Avila, along with Caitlin Vega of the California Labor Federation would be instrumental in using Foster’s story for the purposes of getting Asm. Gonzalez’s AB5 into law.
In Ms. Grimes’ California Globe article, she also mentions the California Labor Federation in relation to Foster’s place of lodging. Steve Smith, Communications Director for California Labor Federation corresponded with Ms. Grimes requesting she issue a correction.
Ms. Grimes granted his request.
Correction: California Globe was told it was a lobbyist with the California Labor Federation Carmel Foster stayed with, but it was actually a director with the California Domestic Workers Coalition who allowed Foster to stay with her. “She never stayed at the residence of a Labor Federation lobbyist,” Steve Smith, Communications Director for CLF emailed. “We had absolutely nothing to do with preparing her for her testimony. Further, the only time we met her was the morning of the hearing and had no contact with her at any point after that.”
However, while Vega had no physical contact with Foster before the hearing, the below email shows that Vega did have email contact with Foster as early as August 11, 2018. Less than 9 months before the April 3, 2019 Labor Committee hearing:
When Ms. Grimes forwarded the above information to Mr. Smith, he issued what might be considered a denial, but appeared to obfuscate the fact that Vega did have contact with Foster before the Labor Committee hearing. Ms. Grimes contacted this writer for the above corroborating evidence; at my request, Ms. Grimes forwarded Mr. Smith’s reply to me:
There appears to be a concerted effort on the part of the California Labor Federation to distance themselves from Asm. Ting, Foster, and the organization’s involvement in AB5.
When Vega, who sat next to Foster at the April 3 Labor hearing prepared to give her introductory remarks and introduce Foster, Vega said, “My name is Caitlin Vega of the California Labor Federation, proud to be a co-sponsor of this bill”. See timecode 1:50:35.
Since Vega is no longer in the employ of the California Labor Federation and the organization looks as though it is trying to get as far from this scandal as possible, does this mean that California Labor Federation is no longer proud to support the AB5 law? If so, millions of independent contractors and freelancers would rejoice over a public renunciation. But we won’t be holding our breaths.
Dual Allegiances Revealed
It was in 2018 when Foster disclosed to Leadem that:
“I was sleeping with Phil Ting. I never knew she knew him. I was put right in the Lion’s den to tell you the truth.”
Sarah Leadem talks with keynote speaker Phil Ting at the California Domestic Workers Alliance Rally Day in San Francisco, March 9, 2018. Photo: Carmel Foster
Foster said she had no idea that Sarah Leadem and Phil Ting knew each other until she discovered this photo of Leadem introducing Ting at a rally in support of SB2314.
It is one thing to enter into a sexual dalliance with one person. It is quite another to find out you’ve become the victim of a disinformation train. In Foster’s mind, it had become an agenda of sex and political sport. So, she employed her own self-protective measures, like preserving emails and texts. And recording phone calls.
Part III of this series will reveal more details from that preservation.
UPDATE: 07-04-2020: At the request of National Domestic Workers Alliance General Counsel, phone numbers in the 04-02-2019 and 04-11-2018 screen grabs have now been redacted.
This is the second article in a three-part investigative series. Read also Part 1: Did CA Budget Chair Phil Ting use an extramarital affair to craft legislation?
Karen Anderson, Managing Editor, At Home Magazine, and columnist contributed to this article.