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Overworked, Underpaid, Traumatized, and Too White

Why congressional staffers are pushing to unionize their offices on Capitol Hill

Staffers get a rare break in the Russell Senate Office Building
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Staffers get a rare break in the Russell Senate Office Building at the U.S. Capitol on September 23, 2021.

Maybe it’s the low pay—under $30,000 for some entry-level positions. Maybe it’s the lack of diversity, and fewer opportunities for nonwhite staffers to advance. Maybe it’s the long hours and the expectation of constant availability, such that the phrase “work-life balance” becomes a dark joke. Maybe it’s the impossible standards of some bosses, and bad behavior exacerbated by extreme power imbalances. Maybe it’s the fact that the workplace was overrun by a mob intent to harm them.

There isn’t just one reason that congressional staffers are pushing to unionize, but a combination of factors that create an untenable work environment. Although employees within individual politicians’ offices and Senate and House committees can organize, they are not able to unionize or engage in collective bargaining, essentially because the regulations that would allow them to do so have not been activated. Last week, a group dubbing themselves the Congressional Workers Union publicly announced their efforts to do just that.

“While not all offices and committees face the same working conditions, we strongly believe that to better serve our constituents will require meaningful changes to improve retention, equity, diversity and inclusion on Capitol Hill,” the group said in a statement. “That starts with having a voice in the workplace.”

The poor working conditions for congressional staffers are an open secret on Capitol Hill. Every office and committee is run independently, meaning that there is no uniform standard for personnel decisions such as hiring practices, salaries, and leave time. Although Speaker Nancy Pelosi raised the salary cap for House staffers over the summer, decoupling pay to aides from what members of Congress make, this primarily helped high-level staffers, not the entry-level staffers struggling with low salaries.

“Your pay is low, everybody hates what you do, no one appreciates the work you do, you’re constantly told you’re doing it wrong and someone could do it better,” a senior House Democratic staffer told The New Republic about conditions on the Hill. “And then you add in the fact that people stormed that place and would have harmed you if they could find you.”

A recent survey of 516 respondents found that 47 percent of staffers struggle to pay bills or make ends meet, 68 percent are unhappy with their current compensation, and 59 percent worked more than 50 hours per week. Although the median pay for House staffers as of July 1 was $59,000, lower-level staffers often earn far less. The entry-level salary is roughly $30,000; a January report by Issue One, a political reform nonprofit in D.C., found that one in eight Washington-based congressional staffers made less than a living wage in 2020. That’s a barrier to entry for people who don’t have additional financial support (from a spouse or parent, for instance).

The pitfalls of working as a congressional staffer have recently been highlighted by the popular Instagram account Dear White Staffers. Originally a forum for Black and brown staffers to air their frustrations with working in an overwhelmingly white institution, the account has morphed into a group-therapy session that allows people to anonymously dish on the poor conditions on the Hill affecting all staffers. (According to a 2020 report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, only 11 percent of top Senate staffers were people of color, compared to 40 percent of the country’s population.)

Dear White Staffers has received significant media attention in recent weeks for its “vibe checks,” in which people can voice their concerns about bad bosses and low pay. The Democratic staffer I cited above credited the Dear White Staffers account for raising awareness about particularly toxic work environments. “Instead of it being a thing that you’d have to be in the club to know, it was something you could know from afar,” the staffer said.

Unionization efforts gained some momentum last week with endorsements from high-profile lawmakers, including Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday that President Joe Biden also supported unionization efforts. According to a tracker by the organization Demand Progress, which supports unionization efforts, nearly 100 lawmakers in the House and Senate have voiced their support for allowing staffers to unionize.

“I think that there is a fundamental misunderstanding within the American public of what congressional staffers do and how much money they make,” said Taylor J. Swift, a policy adviser at Demand Progress. “The problem is, when you have low pay, lack of upward mobility, lack of diversity, and don’t have a seat at the bargaining table, that makes it an extremely difficult workplace, a very tough job to sustain.”

Swift noted that more staffers have been leaving the Hill recently, in large part due to the poor working conditions and low pay, even as the cost of living in Washington has increased. “That weakens the institutional expertise and knowledge for a lot of personal offices, committees, etc., which then in turn weakens lawmaking, oversight, the balance of powers in Congress,” Swift argued. (According to a 2020 report by New America, which was released the year before the January 6, 2021, attack, 65 percent of staffers planned to leave Congress within five years.)

Allowing congressional staffers to unionize won’t require changing the rules of either chamber but can be accomplished by passing simple resolutions. The Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 includes provisions allowing for legislative employees to unionize. Thanks to this legislation, unions do exist on Capitol Hill, such as the ones for the Capitol Police, Library of Congress, and Government Accountability Office. However, regulations put in place in 1996 by the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights allowing for member offices and committees to unionize have not been triggered. The two chambers could enable unionization for these staffers by passing a resolution, one for the House and one for the Senate. Representative Andy Levin said that he would introduce a unionization resolution for the House this week.

Like most things on Capitol Hill, the support for unionization appears to be falling along partisan lines. Congressional Republicans have already signaled their opposition. “I don’t think it would be productive for the government,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters on Monday. Representative Elise Stefanik, the chair of the House Republican conference, said Tuesday, “We do not support unionizing on the Hill.” Republican support is not necessary in the House for a resolution allowing unionization to pass, as long as every Democrat supports it.

But a simple majority vote would not suffice in the evenly split Senate, where any such resolution would need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Republicans have so far seemed lukewarm at best about unionization.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, who authored the Congressional Accountability Act, told The New Republic that he was still considering the issue. He cited an article he wrote in 1998 saying that the law should give people on Capitol Hill the right to unionize. “​​I’m not sure I hold that same view today, and that’s why I’m rethinking everything,” Grassley said.

Senator Roy Blunt, the Republican ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee, raised concerns about how a union could function when each member’s office has its own governing rules. “The employer relationship has been member-focused,” Blunt said. “The employee-employer relationship is not between the Senate and the employer or the House and the employer, it’s between the member and the employee. And I don’t know quite how that fits into any traditional union structure, unless you have multiple unions.”

At least one Democratic senator expressed skepticism about unionization efforts on Tuesday. Senator Joe Manchin, whose heterodox positions on the filibuster and the Build Back Better Act have put him at odds with the vast majority of his caucus, worried about putting the burden on the taxpayer for unionizing congressional staff. But Manchin did not say he was opposed.

“If there’s staff that’s not being treated fairly, that should be looked into and taken care of,” Manchin said. “I’ve always been a big supporter of the unions having a right to unionize. But when you’re working for tax dollars … we’ve got to make sure we’re doing it right.”