Pity the beleaguered legislative assistant. A new study of working conditions in the House shows that the average LA is overworked, underpaid and not likely to last long in his or her job.

About 40 percent of LAs, the worker bees of most House offices, have held their positions for less than a year; two out of three have less than two years' experience in their posts, and their average salary is $24,000 a year -- roughly $2,000 below the average of House staffers.

"As congressional workload continues to grow, Hill offices are losing experienced staff at sometimes alarming rates," said Ira Chaleff, executive director of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group that prepared the study.

Chaleff warns that extraordinary turnover in LA and other Capitol Hill jobs, coupled with staff reductions mandated by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced-budget law, threatens to undermine the effectiveness of constituent service and legislative policymaking.

"The consequence is that members are being inadequately briefed before they have to vote or attend hearings," he said. "It also means missed legislative opportunities."

At the core of the problem, the study indicates, are salary levels that lag well behind the $31,011-a-year average for federal workers and further behind salaries for comparable private-sector jobs.

Average salaries in House offices include $18,000 for secretaries and clerks, $19,000 for computer operators, $29,000 for press secretaries and $55,000 for administrative assistants (AAs), the honchos of most congressional operations.

About 80 percent of the AAs surveyed receive more than $45,000 a year and 5 percent are paid the maximum salary of $72,500. In contrast, the lowest-paid workers -- secretaries in district offices -- receive an average of $15,620 a year.

The study found a few bright spots in the pay picture: Average salaries for executive or personal secretaries rose by 26 percent since 1985 and salaries for district aides increased by 19 percent during the same period.

The relatively low salaries and difficult, cramped working conditions have resulted in what Chaleff describes as "shocking" turnover statistics. The average tenure in major Hill positions ranges from 5.5 years for AAs to a low of 1.7 years for receptionists. Even those figures don't reflect the extent of the problem, the report says, because they include Hill veterans with 10 or 15 years' service.

Chaleff contends that Congress must increase its commitment to training programs for new staff members to bring them up to speed rapidly and take steps to encourage longer-term career commitments.

Among other findings of the study:Office managers have taken a financial beating, with their salaries declining by 5 percent, to an average of $25,900, in the past two years.

About 46 percent of congressional offices do not automatically grant cost-of-living increases.

About 68 percent of congressional offices have merit pay systems, down from 77 percent in 1985.

The base number of paid vacation days in congressional offices (two to three weeks) is comparable to the federal bureaucracy (13 days) and exceeds the private sector (10 days or less in most cases).

Only 40 percent of congressional offices have an official sick-leave policy. Of those with leave policies, 85 percent allow 15 days or less.

About 20 percent of congressional offices report difficulty in finding applicants with Hill experience because of the relatively low salaries and benefits offered.

The study was based on responses from 235 offices, or 54 percent of the House of Representatives.