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Living paycheck to paycheck a reality for some Hill staffers, survey finds

Half of nonmanagers surveyed say they’ve struggled to pay bills, according to the Congressional Progressive Staff Association

Staffers walk across the East Plaza of the Capitol in November. About a third of nonmanagers who responded to a Congressional Progressive Staff Association survey this month said they’d taken on a second job to supplement their income.
Staffers walk across the East Plaza of the Capitol in November. About a third of nonmanagers who responded to a Congressional Progressive Staff Association survey this month said they’d taken on a second job to supplement their income. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The struggle to make ends meet as a congressional staffer is D.C.’s worst-kept secret, but for some it means going into the red, according to a recent survey.

Thirty-nine percent of the 516 House and Senate staffers who took the Congressional Progressive Staff Association survey this month said they’ve taken out loans to cover everyday living expenses. 

And talking openly about “economic financial strain, which oftentimes very unfairly can be associated with shame and ideas of failure, is something that simply is out of the question for many nonmanagement congressional staff,” said CPSA co-founder Jacob Wilson in an interview.

The progressive group used congressional listservs to circulate the survey, which asked staffers to share their job rank but not their party affiliation. Most respondents had junior roles — while 106 people said they were managers, 410 said they were not.

Half of the nonmanagers said they had struggled to pay bills or “make ends meet,” and 109 said they did not have the equivalent of one month’s rent in the bank in case of an emergency.

About a third of the nonmanagers said they’d taken on a second job or gig to supplement their income. Another third said waiting tables or stocking shelves wasn’t even an option, thanks to the demands of their Hill jobs, which can include long hours and weekend work.

Wilson said lawmakers and chiefs of staff should see these findings as warning signs. 

“How can Congress be the bulwark for democracy and the American people if its workers can barely survive a single medical bill?” he said. 

“Capitol Hill staff are some of the most prized hires in Washington,” and brain drain has long been a problem, said Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for a more effective legislative branch. 

Top aides got a potential boost last year when House leadership decoupled member and staffer salary caps at the recommendation of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, raising the annual cap for staffers from just under $174,000 to $199,300, meaning they can in theory make more than their bosses. But junior aides are still waiting for changes. 

Standardized pay bands would be a significant move in the right direction, Fitch said, as would  a centralized human resources department. Currently, congressional offices operate as pseudo-fiefdoms, with work policies set by individual lawmakers and managers. 

While more than 350 survey respondents said “they are not satisfied with their current level of compensation,” pay alone is not the whole story. Asked if they felt there’s a “toxic work environment in Congress,” 86 percent of nonmanagement staff said yes, and 80 percent of management staff agreed. Nearly a quarter of all respondents reported feeling “unsafe or uncomfortable because of their identity” while working on the Hill. 

“This survey also highlights how difficult it is for many people of color, who often come from less privileged backgrounds and can’t afford to take a low-paying job or unpaid internships,” said Diala Qasem, president of the Congressional Middle Eastern and North African Staff Association, a concern shared by Congressional Hispanic Staff Association spokesperson Ruby Robles.  

“There’s a lot of work we must do to achieve equitable pay and work conditions for staff,” Robles said. 

Developed by the CPSA acting steering committee — which includes Democratic staffers Philip Bennett, Courtney Laudick and Emma Preston — the survey ran for nine days and closed on Jan. 14. The 516 respondents amount to a small portion of the thousands of employees who work in House and Senate offices in Washington and in congressional districts across the country.

While Wilson said his group shared the survey widely on professional listservs and social media, he acknowledged that with the “progressive” name attached, it probably attracted more Democrats. Respondents didn’t have to say whether their boss is a Democrat or Republican, though they were asked to provide a congressional email address to prove they worked on Capitol Hill. 

But when 91 percent of survey respondents agree they want “more protections to give [them] a voice at work,” that’s hard to ignore, said Wilson, who serves as Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin’s communications director. It suggests “an entire institution understanding” that healthier workplace policies begin with empowering staff. 

“You don’t usually have that type of consensus between management and nonmanagement,” Wilson said. 

Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.

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