Phoenix Comicon Is Reconsidering Their Controversial Proposed Volunteer System — And They're Sorry for All the Drama

A scene from last year's Phoenix Comicon.EXPAND
A scene from last year's Phoenix Comicon.
Benjamin Leatherman

Geeks of the Valley, you can put down your torches and pitchforks for the moment. Organizers of Phoenix Comicon would like to chat with y’all about that controversial new volunteer system they’re implementing.

You know, the one that's caused many of you to go into a Wolverine-style berserker rage recently.

A week after they caused a major uproar in the local geek community with news of a new system of recruiting volunteers for its signature event, Phoenix Comicon organizers released a lengthy statement from convention director Matt Solberg on Thursday, January 5, attempting to explain the situation and apologize for all the drama.

And believe us, there’s been plenty of it over the past several days.

Back on December 29, word leaked that Phoenix Comicon was partnering with the Blue Ribbon Army, a local group that’s served as fan club of sorts for the annual geek extravaganza, to revamp its volunteering process.

Over the last several months, the BRA has been transformed into a nonprofit social club and would now require an annual fee of $20 to $100 to officially join. (In addition to being considered for a Comicon volunteer spot, members also would receive other BRA-exclusive benefits and swag, such as hotel discounts.)

Under the proposed new system, Phoenix Comicon would then recruit the 1,300-plus volunteers it uses to run its event each spring from BRA’s paid membership.

In essence, local geeks would paradoxically have to pay for the privilege of volunteering, something they’ve been able to do for free in years past, albeit in exchange for admission to the event and other perks.

Suffice it to say, the news sparked off a firestorm of tumult within Phoenix’s geek community, including tons of angry diatribes, hurt feelings, allegations of betrayal, and calls to boycott Phoenix Comicon. (Others also took umbrage at the fact that Solberg and other Phoenix Comicon organizers became board members of the Blue Ribbon Army, which was cited as a potential conflict of interest.)

And Solberg is sorry for all the drama that's ensued. The convention director was both candid and contrite in his 1,590-word statement, apologizing for “the rupture that has occurred in our community” over the changes to the volunteer system.

“We did not expect this level of reaction. That friends are unfriending others over this issue is anathema to the core values of both Phoenix Comicon and Blue Ribbon Army, which seek to provide opportunities for those of us in the geek community to celebrate our interests and meet others. As another said, ‘This is con circuit; not politics,’” Solberg states. “It should not be lost on anyone that the visceral reaction is a sign of how passionate our community is about Phoenix Comicon and that we all have a common interest in seeing it thrive for years to come.”

With all that said, however, Phoenix Comicon will still pursue changes to its volunteer and staffing processes to avoid running afoul of current labor and minimum wage laws. According to Solberg, it's a necessary evil that’s aimed at ensure the “continued viability” of the event, particularly in light of recent legal action taken against geek events in other cities for similar issues.

Last year, for instance, the Emerald City Comicon in Seattle was hit with a lawsuit by one of its volunteers over the fact they worked as many hours as a full-time employee without pay, something potentially illegal under particular state labor laws. It's an issue that the geek convention industry, which has relied on volunteer labor for years, has been grappling with in recent years.

And while certain nonprofit organizations and events are exempt (the legendary San Diego Comic Con, for instance, is run by a nonprofit), Phoenix Comicon doesn’t qualify since it's a for-profit company. Additionally, Arizona’s labor laws are sort of vague as to whether or not volunteers are required to be paid for working.

The Exhibitor Hall at a recent Phoenix Comicon.EXPAND
The Exhibitor Hall at a recent Phoenix Comicon.
Benjamin Leatherman

“When I started Phoenix Comicon, I simply followed the model that existed for decades prior to me: volunteers working for a for-profit company. That model is so prevalent within conventions and sporting events that it never occurred to me that there might be legal hurdles in operating in such a fashion,” he says. “However, in recent years, both private parties and governmental agencies have taken the position that a for-profit company can only use volunteer labor under limited circumstances and the lines are not always bright.”

As a result, Solberg says that Phoenix Comicon is changing its staffing policies to avoid potential trouble.

“Simply put, although we believe that Phoenix Comicon has always acted legally, the model we have used presents too large of a risk moving forward. Phoenix Comicon can no longer use direct volunteers to staff the convention while maintaining its current status."

As such, Solberg says, there are two possible solutions to the problem: either start paying everyone who works at Phoenix Comicon or recruit volunteers from the ranks of the Blue Ribbon Army.

Neither option is perfect and each has a downside. The former would see Phoenix Comicon eliminate more than 1,000 positions since they can’t afford everyone’s wages, while the latter allows them to keep roughly the same amount of staff each year, but people would have to pay for the privilege.

Solberg says that Comicon organizers ultimately had to make a choice since “maintaining the status quo is not an option, no matter how much we all wish that it could be.” They went with using the Blue Ribbon Army, he says, since they could avoid downsizing.

“Given the vast number of passionate individuals who participate within Phoenix Comicon, and to minimize the disruption to our overall operations, we chose the second option: to utilize a non-profit social club," Solberg says.

And because of all the sturm und drang that followed, Solberg says he now regrets going in that direction.

“We wrongly believed that the other benefits of membership within Blue Ribbon Army would be seen as outweighing the annual dues,” he says. “Unfortunately, by not clearly explaining the reason for the change, many in the community took away an unintended message.”

He’s now hoping for a do-over of sorts, promises more transparency in the decision-making process, and is seeking feedback from Phoenix Comicon volunteers and staff regarding which option should be chosen.

“At this point, I’m open to either model, as each has strengths and weaknesses,” Solberg says. “My sole purpose is to ensure Phoenix Comicon avoids becoming embroiled in the controversies caused by the shifting industry model and can continue for years to come. We are therefore soliciting your comments and feedback in this regard.”

And Solberg and other Comicon organizers will listen to this feedback during meetings with staff and past volunteers that will be held over the next few weeks. (He has also announced his immediate resignation from the Blue Ribbon Army board to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.)

And while no timetable for the decision has been announced, Solberg says that regardless of what option is chosen, the event will continue to thrive.

“I know this is the most significant transition Phoenix Comicon has yet to make. I know there will be many who will disagree with whatever decision we chose,” Solberg says. “But I know that Phoenix Comicon will survive, thrive, and continue to provide a source of joy and excitement to thousands of attendees.”

Phoenix Comicon 2017 will take place from Thursday, May 25, to Sunday, May 28, at the Phoenix Convention Center. Daily admission is $20 to $45 and a full event pass is $55.

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