No one would confuse the photos for high art. One shows a woman dressed in smart business attire standing in front of the Supreme Court, her face obscured by a cartoon hand flashing the peace sign; the other is just a hand holding a Trader Joe’s employee name tag with the name taped over. But the Hill staffers who posted them to the Humans of the Hill Instagram project hope the photos will prove their worth by helping convince lawmakers to pay their staff better.
“My paycheck runs out before the 10th of every month. I am stressed worrying about how I am going to afford my next meal,” the House staffer pictured in the first photo explains in the accompanying caption. “My immigrant parents can’t afford to have a retirement plan and they put their daughter through college in hopes one day she will be able to take care of them. How am I supposed to take care of them when I can’t even take care of myself?”
“I started working on the Hill with a relatively high salary considering what other folks in other offices were paid. Even with that, I had to live in subpar housing and eventually had to get a second job,” the second caption reads. “This isn’t about demonizing my office — this is about highlighting a common struggle that so many other staffers face.”
The group behind the new project, the Congressional Progressive Staff Association, hopes those posts will be the first of many that will illustrate the financial hardships of poorly paid Hill staffers.
The series, which you can also follow on Twitter, was inspired by Humans of New York, the popular photoblog that pairs on-the-street portrait photography with short and often poignant stories from the subjects, according to CPSA spokeswoman Zoe Bluffstone. Her group partnered with Dear White Staffers, an Instagram account that allows Hill aides to share their gripes and gossip anonymously. Bluffstone hopes Humans of the Hill will similarly show staffers that they’re not alone in their financial struggles and should band together to demand better working conditions.
In some ways, the two anonymous aides behind the initial posts are your typical Hill workers. Both are young college graduates motivated mostly by the sense of purpose their work provides. They both started off as interns.
But the Senate staffer who supplemented her income with shifts at Trader Joe’s faced periods of homelessness growing up. And the House staffer who immigrated with her parents to the United States as a child faces the demands of her native country’s culture where adult children are expected to support not just their parents but their younger siblings as well.
The staffers spoke to CQ Roll Call anonymously over concerns they might face retribution if they embarrassed their bosses. While they started off making $36,000 and $42,000 a year, both aides say they now make $62,000 a year. That’s about $12,000 less than the median income for single, working individuals in D.C. After paying for health care and rent — the median gross rent in D.C. is $1,668 per month — the staffers say they’re strapped.
“It’s causing a lot of folks to leave the Hill because they just can’t afford to work here anymore,” said the Senate staffer, who said that between her office and Trader Joe’s she worked a minimum of 62 hours a week. “The top two reasons are because they’ve maxed out all their credit cards and they can’t afford to work here anymore, or they need to go seek emotional help because of the stress and strain.”
Since it started in 2021, CPSA has focused on raising staffer pay, which for nearly three decades has failed to keep up with inflation. In a CPSA survey a year ago, half of non-management employees said they struggled to pay their bills, and nearly a third said they took on a second job or gig work to help make ends meet.
Congress boosted budgets for aide pay in the fiscal 2022 spending bill, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi set a new minimum salary of $45,000 for full-time workers last May. A fall 2022 CPSA survey found that most respondents got a raise last year, but people of color and women reported lower pay bumps.
The problem of low pay in an expensive city is a bipartisan one, Bluffstone said, and the progressive group hopes their more conservative colleagues will also submit their own stories.
But those staffers may find their bosses are even less sympathetic. CPSA’s lobbying for better pay comes as House Republicans have called for budget cuts across the federal government and as they have attempted to squash a fledgling labor movement among congressional workers. While acknowledging the political environment has grown more challenging since the GOP took over the lower chamber, Bluffstone argued theirs is not a lost cause, even if additional raises are unlikely over the next two years. “It’s our job to keep advocating no matter what,” she said. “We want Republican leadership to look at the stories of these staffers that run [their] offices.”
CPSA says they’ll accept submissions from other staffers, who can remain anonymous if they like.
The first two Humans of the Hill know they could quickly solve their financial woes by parlaying their congressional experience into more lucrative jobs in the private sector. But they said that would be robbing lawmakers, and the voters they represent, of experienced aides who have faced the same challenges voters face.
“I don’t want to leave because I feel it’s important to have people who look like me — their voices — in the rooms where the policies that decide their lives are being made,” the House staffer said. “I fell in love with government helping my parents through the citizenship process. … I’ve got a passion and love for service to our country.”
“I’m the first person in my family to graduate college,” the Senate staffer said. “I want to create spaces on the Hill for folks who didn’t go to an Ivy League or don’t have connections.”