Sean Penn fires back at criticism over his COVID-19 vaccine site: 'Betrayal of all'

Los Angeles, CA - January 15: Actor Sean Penn, left, Mayor Eric Garcetti and Governor Gavin Newsom greet each other at a press conference held at the launch of mass COVID-19 vaccination site at Dodger Stadium on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

In New Orleans, Sean Penn lifted people out of Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters, traversing the swamped city in a boat. A few years later after the earthquake in Haiti, there he was, hauling heavy bags on his own shoulders alongside locals.

Now, the two-time Oscar-winning actor and disaster relief philanthropist is deploying his organization's army of volunteers and staff at COVID-19 vaccine sites in Los Angeles and testing sites across the U.S., earning praise for taking action when the government came up short.

But not everyone is so enchanted, namely two people who claim to work for Penn's nonprofit, Community Organized Relief Effort, which is assisting the city of Los Angeles at the Dodger Stadium mass vaccination site. Penn, in turn, is seething.

The unnamed pair wrote disparaging comments about Penn's operation in the comments section of a Jan. 28 story in the New York Times that depicted a day at the vaccination site. One commenter, a self-described "CORE staff" member, said in order to comply with Mayor Eric Garcetti's sudden push to switch the site's operations from COVID-19 tests to vaccines, employees worked 18-hour days, six days per week, "without the opportunity to take breaks."

Garcetti "more or less ordered" a violation of Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules, the commenter alleged.

Another anonymous scribe took issue with the story's description of "Krispy Kreme for breakfast and Subway for lunch" for site workers.

"We usually DON'T get breakfast, just coffee," the commenter wrote. And the lunch is "NOT" Subway, but "the same old lettuce wraps every day. It's free lunch for staff/volunteers so I'm not complaining but still... not Subway."

Penn was not amused. He fired off an e-mail at 8:18 p.m. Friday to all CORE staff members, turning an internal dust-up into a nearly 2,200-word made-for-leaking-to-the-media-screed. The email was promptly leaked to the Los Angeles Times.

The email veers from admiration for the heroism of his staff members ("the sea of masked faces") to his own post-midnight struggles ("pulling at my hair and pounding pavement") to the treachery of his employees ("dissent in the low-hanging fruit of cyberspace" and "uninformed inaccuracies").

Penn also directly addressed his anonymous critics, framing their comments as "shameful entries," "obscene critiques" and a betrayal of epic proportions:

"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. I have taken counsel and here will refrain from using the words with which I would otherwise choose to describe the character of your actions."

Penn described the two comments as "highly visible," but amid 150 reader responses, they would probably not have gained much attention if not for Penn's email.

Penn co-founded CORE — originally called the J/P Haitian Relief Organization — after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that destroyed much of the island and killed tens of thousands of people. The group continues to work in Haiti and has since provided humanitarian aid after hurricanes in North Carolina, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas.

Last year, the nonprofit began providing free COVID-19 testing across the United States, starting with the Dodger Stadium site, where they now have 350 staff members and volunteers. The group is helping to run 47 COVID-19 testing sites across the country, including in Chicago, New Orleans, North Carolina, Georgia and the Navajo Nation.

CORE relies on a small amount of government funding and on charitable donations, including a $30-million contribution from Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, CORE chief executive and co-founder Ann Lee said in an interview last year. Penn takes no salary from the group, according to its federal tax filings.

Penn, 60, shared a photo on Twitter on Jan. 26 of him receiving the vaccine, saying he was a "lucky man."

The New York Times story chronicled what it's like to vaccinate more than 7,000 people a day in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium, one of the largest vaccination sites in the country, where healthcare workers, retired record-company executives and even Arnold Schwarzenegger lined up for a shot.

CORE workers, some of whom are volunteers, perform nonclinical duties, including directing traffic, signing in patients and coordinating with healthcare staff.

One of the jobs involves running blue mini-coolers full of loaded syringes from R.V. trailers to the stations where patients are vaccinated in their cars.

One of those runners was Garcetti, seen in the article's photos donning a neon vest with the CORE logo on it, directing traffic and checking in patients on an iPad. Penn, in his letter, defended Garcetti as a "leader on every level" and an "encourager-in-chief."

One of the online commenters wrote that the site has a shipping container that serves as a "designated space for overworked staff to go cry in." If you can't get in, the commenter wrote, "it’s because staff are crying inside."

Mara Buxbaum, a representative for CORE and Penn, provided a sheet of statistics about the operation, which said that staff work in eight-hour shifts and are paid hourly. She said as for the other issues raised by the commenters, "Penn's internal memo to the staff speaks for itself."

Labor officials opened an investigation into the Dodger Stadium site on Aug. 27, when it was still a COVID-19 testing site, federal records show. The investigation was prompted by a complaint, and is listed as open, with no confirmed violations, the records show.

No other information was immediately available. Representatives for California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health did not immediately return requests for comment. The department typically does not provide details of complaints or investigations until cases have been closed.

“CORE has complied with all requests from OSHA and work everyday with our medical and LAFD partners to ensure a safe and productive operation,” Buxbaum, the CORE representative, said in a statement.

A person familiar with the matter said the complaint questioned whether there was enough shade at the site for workers, and whether tables were spaced far enough apart to allow for physical distancing. The person, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said the issues were resolved.

In response to questions about Penn and working conditions at Dodger Stadium, Garcetti spokeswoman Andrea García said only that the city has administered more than 195,000 vaccine doses, or 97% of its supply. The mayor, she said, "deeply appreciates" the groups working at the site, including CORE.

In his email, Penn said that Garcetti had not ordered CORE staff to work excessive hours. Instead, he said, Garcetti "gave a directive" to LAFD leaders, and then fire leaders requested additional CORE manpower — so the responsibility for extra work, he wrote, "falls squarely at my feet."

He said the organization "does everything in its power" to comply with workplace safety regulations and "the basic laws of common sense," but that CORE's mission may require workers to "push that envelope." He added that CORE has "strong complaint procedures and endless other internal avenues for productive criticism."

He called upon OSHA to use "common sense understanding" about the demands of the job during the pandemic, and said a disaster-response group's work "can never ever be compared like the apples to oranges of other workplaces."

"When there is a quantifiable urgent need and an unquantifiable supply of vaccine, it should be of no surprise that we would have a day of reckoning where surge crowds and slim staffing merge," Penn wrote.

He heaped praise on his staff: "You rose up. You did. Not me. All of you. And I will admit something. It made me weep. Not with some stupid self-presumed sense of fatherly pride, but simply a human pride in experiencing that people like you exist."

He reflected on his past humanitarian work, noting that communities in crisis have been torn apart by "in-fighting from within the very organizations they most relied on."

Penn also suggested that anyone "predisposed to a culture of complaint" and "broad-based cyber whining" should consider an alternative approach instead of engaging in a "broad betrayal of all."

"It’s called quitting," Penn wrote. "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. A moment of service that we must all embody sometimes to the point of collapse."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.