Neverending work days and ridiculous salaries: Capitol Hill staffers rebel against their conditions
Young people on the bottom rung of US Congress are fighting to improve their labor situation. Many lawmakers have come out in support of their unionizing effort
Washington is to advisers, lawyers and politicians what Hollywood is to aspiring actors: the place to work hard, prosper and achieve your dream. Getting an internship here is the pathway to a poorly paid job as a staffer. The work usually entails crazy hours, where most of the time is spent answering phones and pushing paper. But this is done without complaint in the hope that one day they will form part of a lawmaker’s inner circle – or perhaps even become one.
At a local Dunkin’ Donuts, it’s easy to differentiate the interns from the staffers. The former move about energetically with a mix of wonder and anxiety on their faces, while the latter rush in as though they were busting to go to the toilet and barely had time for a cup of coffee. But the staffers and interns do share something in common: their poor working conditions have become the latest battle to face Congress.
The demanding hours, low salaries and constant pressure have led the bottom rung of Congress to start a kind of rebellion. Last week, they announced they wanted to form the first union in the history of the Capitol. What’s more, not only have they won the support of the White House, even their bosses are fighting for them.
EL PAÍS was able to speak with a 26-year-old man who worked as an intern four years ago. Although he no longer holds that position, he asked to remain anonymous. He says that when he was interning, his first job of the day was to make a coffee for his boss, a Republican lawmaker. Sometimes he led tours of the Capitol or sat down with different associations. With his fellow interns, he enjoyed the food and beer that was left over after meetings of the bosses.
I was having to live off food stamps and free health care because I could not afford anything elseAudrey Henson, former Republican staffer
Internships are not usually paid, but universities offer grants to offset the living expenses of spending a season in the capital. The former intern, who is from Michigan, received $350 a month. But for three months he had to use a credit card to pay for everything. Washington DC is the sixth most expensive city in the US, a place where renting a room costs an average of $2,225 (€1,937) a month.
So why did he put up with these conditions? “You’re new, you’re very excited. You think you are more important than you are. You just want to be part of the game,” he explains. “I had problems because I wasn’t paid enough, of course. It was hard, but I thought: ‘Who is going to pay a 20-year-old for pushing papers more than an adult who is feeding his family working at a gas station?’”
His experience is far from unique. Jonathan Reuss, 20, moved from Florida to Washington DC to earn $9 an hour as an intern, while his friend Louisa is sharing an apartment with three other girls and working on a second project to make ends meet.
Like interns, staffers also have difficulty making ends meet. According to a survey by the Congressional Progressive Staff Association, nearly half of staffers have trouble paying their bills.
At a 2020 congressional hearing, Audrey Henson, a former Republican staffer, highlighted the problem. “When I first went from intern to staffer, I made $25,000 (€21,761) a year,” she said, quoting a figure that is half the average salary in Washington – $49,500 (€43,088). “And I was having to live off food stamps and free health care because I could not afford anything else.”
The precarious work conditions and low wages mean that only a few young people can afford to take on the job, typically because their family is supporting them or they have savings. But this is a huge obstacle for most Black and Latino aspirants, who cannot afford to live in the US capital without a decent salary. Just 3% of Senate staffers are Black, a figure that remains the same when it comes to chiefs of staff, according to a 2020 report by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
The 26-year-old former intern tries to justify the poor wages: “When you are young and ambitious, when you try to earn more money, your performance and work loyalty get better, without a doubt.” But this competitive type of work atmosphere is considered toxic by 85% of staffers, according to the Congressional Progressive Staff Association.
The scandal over the working conditions of interns and staffers broke out on Instagram via an account called Dear White Staffers. This account became viral after it released anonymous reports, both from current and former staffers, which criticized poor treatment, discrimination and varying degrees of abuse in the supposedly glamorous sphere of power. After the problem gained visibility online, a group called the Congressional Workers Union announced last Friday that it was launching an effort to unionize the offices and committees in Congress. On Wednesday, Democrat lawmaker Andy Levin presented a resolution, co-sponsored by more than 130 Democratic members, to greenlight the union.
“Just last year, a majority of the House voted to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize Act – promising to protect millions of people’s voice at work. Now is the time for Congress to live up to that promise in our own offices,” said the Congressional Workers Union in a press release on Thursday. “Our boss’ ability to better serve our constituents hinges on meaningful chances to improve the shameful workplace conditions on Capitol Hill – from livable wages to a safer workplace and protections against discrimination and harassment.”
Although lawmakers from both the Democratic and Republican parties have come out in support of the move, several Republican lawmakers have said they will not vote in favor of the resolution. It needs 60 votes to be approved in the Senate, where each party holds 50 seats.