The Plight of the Unemployed Chief of Staff

(CQ Roll Call Illustration/Chris Hale)
(CQ Roll Call Illustration/Chris Hale)
Posted March 18, 2015 at 5:00am

All good things come to an end.  

At least, that is the way a newly unemployed chief of staff rationalizes the abrupt end of his job and nearly 20-year Capitol Hill career. “Jon,” granted anonymity for this article, loved working as a chief of staff for a rank-and-file member of Congress representing a competitive district. When his boss lost re-election in November, everyone in the office knew they would be out of a job soon.  

“My last paycheck was in January,” Jon said. He was paid for the two days he worked before the 114th Congress was sworn in and he was officially unemployed. (He kept his health insurance through February, before joining the District’s health care exchange.) Jon isn’t alone — 77 members vacated seats at the start of 2015, not including those who left Congress for another elected position.  

The defeated congressman  makes calls on behalf of his former employees, but Jon is one of several senior aides who haven’t yet landed a new gig.  

The transition has been particularly hard for him because his entire career has been wrapped up in Capitol Hill, and he’s not sure where to turn next.  

“Part of me does want to go back to the Hill,” Jon told CQ Roll Call recently over lunch at Fiola . A provision of the Federal Employees’ Retirement System allows workers to retire at any age, but he is still at least two years short of the 25 years needed to reap that benefit. Jon’s concern is if he doesn’t find a job on Capitol Hill now, he isn’t likely to return.  

“I had a great job, I was very content. I would have stayed,” he said. “But I suspect once I leave, I’m gone.”  

Chiefs of staff, in particular, can have a harder time transitioning to another Hill job. Entry-level positions such as staff assistant or legislative correspondent abound on the Hill, and policy staffers can find a position that matches their area of expertise. But chiefs are jacks-of-all trades, and their jobs rely on a strong connection with their bosses. Once that member is gone, it can be hard to find another match.  

Jon spent nearly 10 years with his most recent boss. He’s well connected on Capitol Hill and in the administration, but he has been reluctant to tap into his network for job interviews. “Several interviews have landed in my lap,” he said, referring to friends who knew he was looking and helped arrange meetings or “conversations,” as he called them, rather than formal interviews. Three were for chief-of-staff openings on Capitol Hill. Two were for jobs with federal agencies. Despite the initial interest, he hasn’t yet received a job offer.  

“I think I came in second for two of the spots,” he said. One job went to an already established front-runner and the other was filled by a chief with the Senate experience Jon lacks.  

“If an employee has worked in the same position for more than 10 years, finding employment can be difficult,” said Bradford Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation. “There may be reticence on the part of the future employer that they cannot adapt. Or maybe they’re viewed as buddies with the member, not an actual manager.”  

Fitch believes many associations and nonprofits would want to hire someone like Jon, but there is an issue of pay and finding a position that would match a chief’s salary and managerial experience.  

A Senate chief of staff would have an easier time, because they are “in high demand, you’re in a club of 1 of 100. Some can double or triple their pay in one year,” Fitch said.  

As a House chief of staff, Jon made close to $130,000 annually, lower than the $142,000 average and $168,000 maximum tallied by the Congressional Research Service for 2013. With tighter office budgets, Jon hadn’t had a raise in five years.  

He described his job as stressful and extremely busy, with little free time, “I had no social life,” he said, and brought “unhealthful habits” that came along with the stress, such as eating takeout most nights from Tortilla Coast or Bullfeathers. He’s using his newfound free time to work out, get rest and eat right.  

Jon figures he has six months worth of savings before he would need to liquidate assets, and earlier this month was eagerly anticipating a tax refund. His aim is to find a job by April: “I’m concerned my writing and analytical skills would atrophy.”  

Several of his friends are in high-ranking, lucrative positions, willing to meet with him and talk about various career paths, should he decide to leave Capitol Hill for good.  

“I still have to remind them that I’m looking,” he said. “I have friends who were in the same position in 2010 and 2012 [after the elections]. They all landed in new jobs, though it took awhile.” The friends who have made time for him have been “heartening.” Many insist on picking up the check for the meal, which Jon appreciates, though he says is not necessary.  

The other sting of unemployment? Dating. Jon is concerned his lack of a job is a turnoff, though his new schedule provides him more time for going out, without the hassle of last-minute cancellations, late votes or airport runs. He speaks highly of someone he recently met. “She’s in D.C., she gets it,” he said. “But she might feel differently if it’s July Fourth and I’m still looking.”  


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The 114th: CQ Roll Call’s Guide to the New Congress

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