The Washington Post

Hill staffers content with their work, but everything isn’t perfect, survey shows

Correction: An earlier version of this story did not credit the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation as a partner in the report. This version has been corrected.

Congressional employees are generally happy with their jobs, despite relatively poor pay, unpredictable hours and low public regard for their bosses, according to a report scheduled for release Monday.

A joint survey from the Congressional Management Foundation and the Society for Human Resource Management Foundation found that 80 percent of Capitol Hill staffers are satisfied with their jobs. More than 1,400 employees rated the issues that mattered most to them as well as their level of contentment.

Among the positive findings, 97 percent of respondents said they were confident that they can meet their work goals, and 83 percent said they enjoy taking on assignments beyond their normal duties.

Although they said they were generally happy with their work, staffers also said they also faced frustrations.

Capitol Hill isn’t immune to employee-management tensions, according to the study. Congressional offices struggle with communication between staffers and their bosses, with the survey noting that only 22 percent of respondents said they were very satisfied in that regard. A majority, 70 percent, rated the issue as very important.

“That’s a bit of a warning sign to managers that they need to take heed of the concerns being voiced by employees,” said Brad Fitch, president and chief executive of the foundation.

In addition, less than half, or 43 percent, said they were very satisfied with the meaningfulness of their jobs, while three-quarters said the issue was very important. Similarly, only 32 percent said they were very satisfied with the opportunities to use their skills and abilities, while 72 percent said they considered that to be very important.

Maisha Leek, chief of staff for Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.), said the “crush of activity” and the pressures of working on the Hill can be challenging. “It can be a complex environment, but most offices are focused on doing the best they can with the time and resources they have to nurture and develop staff,” she said.

Leek counts herself among those who feel highly satisfied with their congressional roles, a symbol of the motivations — and tradeoffs — many make to work on the Hill.

“I just don’t know that there’s another job where I could have as much of a direct influence on people,” she said. “I can drive the debate to do something substantive and important.”

The survey revealed significant differences between staffers working in Washington and those employed in state and district offices. For example, slightly less than half of the D.C. respondents said they considered retirement and savings plans to be important, compared with 70 percent of the workers in local offices.

“The demographics are different,” Fitch said. “They’re more likely to be single and younger in Washington, whereas they tend to be older and married and female in district offices.”

More than two-thirds of female respondents said they considered their benefits package to be very important, compared with about half of men.

The survey revealed no meaningful differences between House and Senate employees, or between political parties, according to the report.

The foundation also examined staff retention and turnover, finding that pay is not a critical factor in whether workers decide to leave the legislative branch. Only 38 percent of respondents said compensation was a significant determinant in that regard.

The foundation estimates that legislative employees are paid 20 to 40 percent less than their counterparts in the executive branch and private sector, based on the group’s compensation studies between 1990 and 2004.

The latest data compiled for the House Administrative Office show that legislative assistants, one of the most common roles among congressional employees, earned an average salary of about $49,000 in 2010.

The survey showed that legislative staffers are less forgiving on the issue of benefits, with 72 percent saying it influences whether they will stick with their jobs. That concern may reflect the anxiety many held regarding legislation focused on Congress and their staffs.

Health coverage emerged as a major concern among Hill staffers when Congress agreed to a 2009 amendment to the Affordable Care Act that will eventually block them from the federal worker health benefits program. The provision, introduced by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-
, requires lawmakers and their employees to enroll in the newly forming insurance exchanges, unless they have other options through family members.

Legislative employees feared that they would have to shoulder the entire cost of their premiums, but the Office of Personnel Management said last month that the government can contribute toward their coverage.

The foundation’s report is part of a three-part series titled “Life in Congress,” which also looked at work-life balance for Hill staffers and the perspectives of lawmakers. Those analyses came out in October 2012 and March 2013, respectively.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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