Concerns about low pay, hostile work environments and racial and gender discrimination have gripped Capitol Hill over the past week as an Instagram account called “Dear White Staffers” has posted hundreds of testimonials from current and former aides that tell a dispiriting story about what it’s like to work in the halls of Congress.
The frequency of posts, which have been appearing multiple times per hour in the account’s Instagram stories, has picked up recently, and the number of people following the account has grown from 13,000 to about 25,000 in two days. The account was created in January 2020, and its first post was a meme during the Trump administration mocking how minorities are paid less than White staffers, but its profile on Capitol Hill has risen steadily since the new year.
“Our federal laws are being written and edited by folks [meanwhile] we can’t pay enough to EAT and pay RENT??” one anonymous responder mused after reading scores of complaints.
“I’m just waiting to get a better offer and I’m out. this work is not sustainable and I’m done draining myself for minimal successes,” one submission read.
“I have been on the Hill for 10 years and don’t have the courage yet to share my experiences, but there is power in numbers and watching these stories has been sadly validating,” one admitted.
The Instagram page has become a venue to air frustrations at a time when many Hill aides are becoming increasingly demoralized over their inability to effect public policymaking in an increasingly partisan environment that has traditionally embraced a “pay your dues” mentality.
“It’s a moment in time where people are saying, ‘I don’t know if I can work in these conditions, and I’m not alone in feeling that way,’ ” Courtney Laudick, a senior legislative aide for Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), said about the attention the account is getting on Capitol Hill. “The pandemic, many people leaving the Hill due to turnover and pressure in an office have all contributed to people feeling open to talking about these conditions anonymously.”
The secret nature of the account has made it difficult to independently verify specific complaints made against members of Congress. The Washington Post is not naming any of the offices mentioned in the posts because the complaints are made anonymously and could not be corroborated.
The person who runs the account also remains nameless, liking a direct Instagram message sent by The Post requesting comment but not writing back.
But in interviews, about a dozen congressional aides echoed many of the frustrations aired on the account. They said morale on Capitol Hill among staff is low as longtime concerns about pay and how people are treated have become exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and the increasingly toxic work environment following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
“Rule up here is you don’t talk about your boss. If you don’t like your boss, you leave and go to another office,” one Democratic staffer said. “But you can’t treat your staff badly and not expect it to come out.”
The flood of testimonials tells a similar story about lawmakers pointed out as bad bosses who are unrealistically demanding, expect staff to meet their every need immediately without thanks or acknowledgment, and don’t interact with low-level stuff much — and if they do, it’s often to complain about something.
One testimony talked about meetings where members ate lunch but staffers were required to stand with their backs against the wall and were not allowed to eat or sit. Another claimed that a member once asked them “if they wanted to be a postal worker for the rest of [their] life” because they delivered an envelope on the House floor. One staffer shared that a member threw a pair of reading glasses at them after bringing the wrong pair. Another post described interviewing in a member’s office at the same time as other job candidates and being asked, among other things, to state their salary request in front of the people with whom they were competing for the job.
Many of the people whose testimonials have been posted said they worked for Democratic lawmakers. It’s unclear why more aides from Republican offices have not participated, but many of the issues discussed on the account — unionization, equal pay, discrimination — tend be ones that animate liberals more than conservatives.
The page has caught the attention of chiefs of staff and communications directors who are now clicking through Instagram stories themselves. Some aides said they have heard that the page has become a topic of conversation among members.
“Members are … starting to talk to each other about it,” said a Democratic staffer, who, like others, spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Asked about the account at her weekly news conference Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declined to comment. Asked whether she supported congressional staff unionizing, she said, “Well, we just unionized at the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee], and I supported that.”
Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, later tweeted: “Like all Americans, our tireless Congressional staff have the right to organize their workplace and join together in a union. If and when staffers choose to exercise that right, they would have Speaker Pelosi’s full support.”
On Friday, the Congressional Workers Union announced plans to form a union that represents all employees working for members and committees.
“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.
The median pay for House staffers was $59,000 a year as of July 1, 2021, according to a House Office of Diversity and Inclusion report, with entry-level staffers making far less, often in the $30,000 range.
Beyond pay, aides said in interviews that burnout and an increasingly tense partisan environment are also big reasons many staffers view their job as a quick steppingstone to working as a lobbyist or moving into another industry where their D.C. experience is valued.
The cost of living in Washington, D.C., is so high that unpaid internships and low pay for entry-level jobs are enough to dissuade many minorities who cannot rely on their family’s income from applying for jobs, according to postings on “Dear White Staffers.” Those who do take the jobs often end up leaving them soon after being hired, postings say.
A report from the group Issue One released last week found that 13 percent of D.C.-based congressional staff, or 1 in 8 congressional staffers, aren’t paid a living wage, with entry-level staff in particular earning 30 percent less than the national average salary in 2020. The report covers a time frame before the current surge in inflation, which has made it even more difficult to live in D.C. for people already living paycheck to paycheck.
The group, which compiled staff data collected by LegiStorm, also determined that the number of congressional staff has declined 16 percent over the past decade.
Some prospective job candidates have taken a look at the “Dear White Staffers” account and said no thanks to the idea of working in Congress.
“Getting my masters in public policy right now and had thought about looking at hill jobs. now definitely not,” someone anonymously responded to a post asking whether anyone was reconsidering applying to Capitol Hill offices after reading firsthand testimonials.
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House Democratic staffers, in particular, are eyeing the exits, looking to get out before the midterm elections when Republicans are favored to retake the majority and move Democrats into the minority where their priorities are unlikely to be considered.
The “Great Resignation,” as one aide put it, has already begun, with almost 30 Democratic members deciding not to seek reelection and their staffers quitting to find new opportunities off the Hill.
Sensing the rise in frustrations, the recently founded Congressional Progressive Staff Association (CPSA) sent a survey for other student associations to circulate starting on the first anniversary of Jan. 6. Laudick, the senior legislative aide who sits on the executive board of the association, acknowledged that although the sample size was small, it did include a question about workplace protection for staff that could come through a union. Ninety-one percent of respondents, a majority of whom self-identified as Democrats, said yes.
“Congress cannot function without staff. We do a lot of the heavy lifting. A lot of people who come to the Hill came here to either work on policy, make changes for working people or wanting to dig in to handle casework,” Laudick said. “It’s hard when you get here and advocate for people, and then you come home and look at your bank account and wonder if you can make this month’s rent.”
The frustration to retain talented public servants has not been lost on House Democratic leaders. Pelosi created the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which has made scores of bipartisan recommendations to improve staff development on the Hill, some of which have been permanently instituted.
She also made a decision last summer that senior staff could earn close to $200,000, which exceeds the legal base pay for members by about $25,000.
Many opinions shared on the “Dear White Staffers” Instagram page have acknowledged the reforms being pushed by leaders and individual lawmakers, but the posters repeatedly note how they are not happening fast enough to improve the work environment through better salaries and holding members accountable for unprofessional behavior.
It’s an opinion shared beyond the confines of Instagram.
“We’re at a point where no matter how much we slug our guts out, we move inches at a time, and every moment is fleeting,” a senior Democratic staffer said. “When margins are this thin and we keep coming up short on small-ticket items, especially since this is our one shot possibly for another decade until we have the White House and Congress again, it’s hard to look at the picture and know it will only get worse.”
Theodoric Meyer contributed to this report.