WASHINGTON — Last May, Rep. Pramila Jayapal introduced the Paycheck Recovery Act, aimed at curbing layoffs during the pandemic by having the federal government pay people’s salaries. Publicly, Jayapal contended that passing the bill was a matter of survival for workers. But privately, former staffers said, the lawmaker acted very differently.
In November 2020, she laid off two staffers without severance, two people familiar with the incident told BuzzFeed News. Chris Evans, a spokesperson for Jayapal, said the decision to consolidate was made to “best utilize” the office’s resources, and the staffers were given six weeks’ notice. But one staff member who was told they were being laid off was invited to reapply for a new job in the office that would consolidate the two roles, those familiar said. The staffer was required to go through the full application process, despite the job being nearly identical to the one they had been laid off from. And then, without advance warning, they found out in an all-hands meeting that they did not get the job. The staffers who were let go declined to provide comment for this story.
The incident upset at least four staffers in the office who spoke with BuzzFeed News. It was, they said, one of many instances in which Jayapal’s interactions with her employees have run counter to the public persona she’s built for herself.
Despite the fact that Jayapal is one of the highest-profile progressives in DC and the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, 14 former staffers from throughout her nearly five years in Congress describe a dysfunctional and volatile workplace. There is, they said, a serious disconnect between how she talks about workers’ rights and how she treats her own staff. The conversations with former staff members, all granted anonymity to speak candidly due to the insular nature of Capitol Hill and fears of retaliation, reveal an especially harsh office with a boss whose treatment of workers runs contrary to the public expectations she has set for others.
In interviews with BuzzFeed News, they described Jayapal as a boss who berated staff in front of others, demanded grueling hours, and maintained an office culture marked by constantly changing expectations and little tolerance for error, to the extent that some staffers sought therapy and questioned their careers in public service. Since taking office, Jayapal has had one of the highest staff turnover rates in the House, due in large part, former employees said, to the unrealistic standards she sets. “It's not sustainable to be able to stay for too long,” one said.
The staffers’ stories are also reflective of major cultural shifts and a broader recognition of inequities happening in both DC and across the country. It is undeniable that women in politics, especially women of color, are held to a different standard than white men, and Jayapal is no exception. But as someone who rose to national prominence with an agenda centered on the dignity of working people, she now faces a changing workforce herself. On Capitol Hill, where elected officials have wide sway over how they operate their offices, generations have been subjected to a range of behaviors, from unquestionably positive to abusive. Many members of Washington’s professional class feel that the tough conditions and low pay are a rite of passage, the tradeoff being that they get to work in one of the most powerful institutions in the world. But the workforce now is less willing to accept undignified working conditions as a necessary evil on the path to fulfilling ever-higher career ambitions.
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In response to requests for comment for this story, Jayapal’s chief of staff, Lilah Pomerance, said in a statement, “Women of color are often unjustly targeted, regularly held to higher standards than their male colleagues, and always put under a sexist microscope.”
Pomerance claimed that the anecdotes were “cherry picked,” contained “ugly stereotypes,” and lacked context. BuzzFeed News spent more than three months reporting, confirmed accounts with multiple sources, reviewed documents and text messages, and reached out to staffers from throughout Jayapal’s tenure.
“I’ve worked in bad environments before, and I have worked in some awful environments before for some awful people. I’ve been colleagues with some awful people,” one former Jayapal staffer said. “I have never worked in a place that has made me so miserable and so not excited for public service as Pramila Jayapal’s office.”
Many felt obligated to speak out despite worrying that a critical story about Jayapal would reflect poorly on the progressive movement they believe in. “It’s almost like Stockholm syndrome,” one former staffer said. Ultimately, most decided to share their accounts because they felt it was vital to spotlight how the progressive leader treats her staff and the Capitol Hill culture that enables that behavior.
“Pramila has the absurd task of tackling some of the country’s most urgent problems with the limited resources our system provides. Like all members of Congress, she must decide how much of that burden to place on her staff, and like all members of Congress, she doesn’t always get it right,” said another former staffer, who noted that, while they were treated respectfully while they worked in her office, they couldn’t speak for others. “I believe she is doing the best she can, and hope that any talk around working conditions can help inspire progressive members (and their senior staff) to raise the standard above the status quo.”
Jayapal is an effective public advocate for workers, another former staffer said. “She just doesn’t recognize that the staff are also humans.”
Jayapal, who made her name as a progressive advocate before running for office, was elected to the House to represent a Seattle-area district the same night Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. She soon found herself leading progressive messaging against his administration and quickly rose to prominence pushing for leftist priorities like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
Her lived experience spoke directly to some of the most pressing issues of the day, which made her a compelling figure in an institution that lacks diversity: She is an immigrant, a mother to an adult child who she has said is gender-nonconforming, and open about having had an abortion. Before her first term even wrapped up, she was elected cochair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; last year, she was elected as its sole chair.
“Pramila Jayapal is a progressive leader and a tireless advocate for women and families,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock said in a statement during Jayapal’s 2016 campaign.
But today on Capitol Hill, her alleged treatment of her staff is an open secret.
“If you were in Jayapal’s office, people were like, ‘You don’t need to say no more’ — like, ‘We understand’ — so there was that reputation,” one source said. “For the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus to have that reputation, I just think that’s really sad.”
Since her election to the House, Jayapal has repeatedly had one of the highest staff turnover rates in Congress, ranking 33rd out of 539 members from 2017 to 2020 — in the 94th percentile — according to the congressional tracking service LegiStorm, a reliable congressional data tracker. So far in 2021, that number has risen slightly: Jayapal is now in the 96th percentile for turnover, according to the LegiStorm analysis.
In practice, according to LegiStorm data, the turnover is so high that a significant number of former staffers throughout her congressional tenure — not including fellows, interns, or professional caucus staff — left after less than a year in the office. A review of LegiStorm data by BuzzFeed News found that this was true of 15 out of 40 former staffers; Jayapal’s office said it was true of 12 of 48 former staffers — Jayapal’s office could not explain the discrepancy.
According to her office’s numbers, of the 16 current full-time members in her personal staff, which does not include caucus staffers who also fall under her supervision, nine started less than one year ago and five have been in the office for more than two years. “If you’re working for the champion of workers, you would think and hope that’s not the case,” a former staffer said of the turnover.
Evans, the spokesperson for the office, argued that the turnover numbers are “sensational” and don’t tell the whole story. He said in a statement, “Many former Jayapal staffers moved on to serve in some of the highest levels of the Biden-Harris administration, elected office, local government, more senior roles on the Hill, issue and political campaigns, and the leadership teams of national organizations that we partner with.”
That argument was echoed by a former senior staffer for Jayapal who reached out to BuzzFeed News as part of the office’s response. That aide also argued that this is a function of the fact that Hill staffers don’t work regular 9-to-5 jobs.
“Maybe it felt like it was unsustainable. I totally get all that, and I think that’s going to happen sometimes. But I also think it is just not your run-of-the-mill congressional office where the work sort of slows down. It never slows down," the former senior aide said.
But in conversations with BuzzFeed News, sources said burnout, lack of upward mobility, low pay, and an unsustainable work environment were among the reasons they chose to leave. One source said they went so far as to take a pay cut to get out of the office. Another said they had been fighting for a raise for nearly a year before “emotionally, physically, and mentally” the toll became too much. Ultimately, despite believing in Jayapal’s cause and having a certain image of her, former staffers were largely disappointed by the reality of working for her.
“You’re young and impressionable and, without a lot of experience in a workplace, you don’t know what is right, what is wrong, how to stand up for yourself, [or] what to say when you stand up for yourself,” one former staffer said. “There’s this power dynamic that you’re just this early twentysomething, and it’s like, how do I speak out against a member of Congress?”
Though the positions are usually at salaries substantially lower than private sector jobs, employment on the Hill can be extremely valuable and often go to applicants with elite connections and credentials. Even an entry-level job in Congress can open doors for staffers to move to other lucrative opportunities and begin high-profile careers in politics.
Like other white-collar industries, the Hill has witnessed a recent upswing in employee organizing, and employees have taken on serious conversations about workers’ rights. Though Hill staffers are legally barred from unionizing, a group of progressive staffers recently organized a Progressive Staff Association and hope to use it as a vehicle to diversify the congressional workforce and build solidarity.
Hill roles, especially junior ones, can be grueling. “If people knew how much Washington ran on like 22-, 23-, 24-year-olds — I mean, these are people who are really moving shit,” one source said. Staff assistants, among the lowest-paid positions in Congress, often faced the brunt of the problems in Jayapal’s office.
As is the case in many other congressional offices, staff assistants are required to have a car in order to drive Jayapal. While there is a per-mile reimbursement for federal employees intended to cover fuel, maintenance, and “wear and tear,” in addition to reimbursement for tolls, fees, and parking while on the job, former staffers argued that the requirement placed a heavy burden on some of the lowest-paid members of the staff, especially for maintenance that requires up-front payment. In metropolitan areas like DC, where the cost of living is already high, the responsibility of owning a car can quickly skyrocket expenses with associated costs like personal parking fees. Jayapal’s office demurred when asked if this requirement excludes qualified candidates; Evans instead argued that Jayapal has “a minority-majority staff and one of the most diverse offices on Capitol Hill.”
The staff assistant is also expected to be available early mornings and evenings to drive Jayapal. According to a spokesperson for the office, the lawmaker’s current staff assistant is paid $42,500 a year, though LegiStorm lists their salary slightly lower, at $42,261. (Despite inquiries from BuzzFeed News, Jayapal’s office and LegiStorm could not explain the discrepancy.) “I don't know how many people can afford to [have a car] on that salary,” a source said.
Notably, Jayapal’s office does pay more for the staff assistant role than some other Hill offices do, according to LegiStorm, which found that the median salary for the position was about $38,500. The former senior staffer who reached out to BuzzFeed News as part of the office’s response to this article argued that they understood that $30,000 was too little to live in DC. But, asked whether they believed $40,000 was a reasonable salary for living in the area, the staffer said they thought that would be “very hard.”
“If we could, we would’ve paid everyone more,” they said.
The expectation that the staff assistant be available to take the lawmaker anywhere she needs to go for work extended even to a plan to drive her the short distance from her office to the Capitol for votes on Jan. 6 as a mob of insurrectionists attacked the complex. Before the riot derailed the day’s plans, members of the House were expected to be on the floor for certification proceedings in the afternoon.
Capitol Police and the House sergeant at arms had advised members to use underground access to the building rather than driving up to the Capitol steps and to plan to remain on campus throughout the day. According to two people who were told about the incident at the time and text messages from the day shared with BuzzFeed News, Jayapal’s staff assistant drove her to the Rayburn House Office Building that morning across the street from the Capitol, and then the aide returned home.
After seeing Trump supporters throughout DC during her morning drive, the staff assistant was nervous about returning to the Capitol later in the day, according to text messages between staffers and two people who spoke with the driver at the time. The staffer discussed their concerns with Jayapal’s scheduler, who is responsible for keeping the day’s plans running. The scheduler was supportive of the staff assistant, and both of them pushed back in conversations with a senior staffer.
As insurrectionists gathered outside the Capitol building in the early afternoon, the staff assistant expressed concern about returning to the area and driving Jayapal from the office to the votes later that day, according to timestamps on the texts viewed by BuzzFeed News.
Jayapal ultimately got to the House floor, but it was not until members were told to shelter in place in the Capitol that the plan for the staff assistant to return to the Hill that day was changed. Had it not been, the staffer would have arrived to pick up Jayapal right around the time the insurrectionists breached the Capitol and office buildings.
Though the staff assistant did not return that afternoon, others in the office said they felt it was unfair to ask her to come back to the Capitol in the first place. The staffers involved in the incident declined to provide comment.
“While the Congresswoman was hiding only feet from violent attackers during that traumatic day, no staff member in our office was put in harm’s way,” Evans said in a statement when asked about the office’s strategy in that circumstance. “It is also well documented that the Congresswoman remained, trapped at times, in the Capitol from the morning of the 6th until she finished certifying the election results around 4:00 the next morning. During that time, our team was safely at home.”
Jayapal has also been known allegedly to berate staffers, at times publicly. In one early 2019 instance, she yelled at a staffer in the anteroom of a House Budget Committee hearing over how an interaction with a witness had gone, according to sources who learned about it immediately or shortly after it happened. Despite the encounter taking place in a back room, there were several witnesses, including employees from other offices. The witnesses said the employee, who was then new to staffing Jayapal at hearings, was in tears after it happened. The staffer who was yelled at declined to provide comment for this story; Jayapal’s office confirmed the incident and said she apologized afterward. “The anecdote is in no way representative of what it is like to work for someone who has spent decades being a champion for the rights of all workers,” Evans said in an email.
At times, Jayapal also grew upset with staffers over scheduling conflicts. Three sources recalled one instance in the office when Jayapal blamed a staffer for the lawmaker’s personal weight gain because she did not have enough gym time on her schedule. The staffer involved declined to provide a comment for this story.
“The Congresswoman is one of less than 100 women of color to have EVER served in Congress and I can’t even begin to imagine this disgustingly sexist rumor about weight and body image being said about the thousands of men who have walked those halls,” Evans said in response to a request for comment. “The Congresswoman is able to serve her 711,000 constituents, lead the progressive caucus, and go to the gym.”
Many of the staffers who spoke with BuzzFeed News noted that Jayapal is not unique on the Hill in facing allegations that she treats her employees poorly. There have been a preponderance of stories about troubled congressional workplaces in recent years, ranging from sexual abuse to emotional manipulation and oppressive standards. In 2019, BuzzFeed News reported on Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s treatment of her staff, who said she demeaned and berated them regularly. And in 2018, Politico reported that former Virginia representative Tom Garrett had allegedly asked his official staff to do personal work outside the scope of their jobs, including picking up dog poop and buying groceries.
But what has frustrated Jayapal staffers is what they see as her hypocrisy and how often they believe her actions cut against her public persona. Many of the staffers who were interviewed for this story said they quickly became disillusioned about their jobs and questioned whether they should continue working on the Hill.
Several staffers also told BuzzFeed News that their mental health had deteriorated because of the office environment and that they’d witnessed their colleagues having similar experiences. Six of them shared with BuzzFeed News that they’d sought therapy while working for Jayapal, in large part because of the lopsided work-life balance in the office, the constantly changing expectations for staffers, and stress about the lawmaker’s nonstop pace.
Some staffers who sought therapy did so through counseling resources available to Hill employees, which received broader promotion within the community after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Several people said they were referred to the services by other Jayapal staffers.
“It is horrible to imply that accessing mental health services is a bad thing,” Evans said in response to questions about staffers seeking therapy. “The Congresswoman has worked to destigmatize mental health care and pushes hard to ensure every person has the full range of care they need.”
Many Jayapal staffers have remained close even after leaving the office, having bonded over the “trauma,” as one described it. Several described needing a long period to adjust once they began a new job elsewhere.
The office environment “was so toxic and abusive that I felt like the only way I could continue to function both in my professional and personal life was to seek therapy and counseling,” one said. Ultimately, this person said, “I felt that leaving was the only choice.”
Across the board, former staffers who spoke with BuzzFeed News said expectations in the office were high and often interfered with their personal lives. Not only was it common for them to be online and working at odd hours, but they said taking time off on weekends and holidays was often out of the question.
Several former Jayapal employees said they frequently worked more than 12 hours a day, sometimes from 8 a.m. to past midnight without meaningful breaks. While this is common across Capitol Hill, especially when the legislative calendar or a particular national crisis calls for it, it is striking in the context of a lawmaker with a reputation as a labor champion. “If votes are called late in the day, we vote. If a committee hearing is scheduled early in the day, we participate,” Evans said in an email. “If a crisis occurs in Seattle on a Sunday, we serve our constituents. We are literally here to help, serve, and fight for them.”
At times, office staffers were put in situations that compromised their professional relationships with other offices because of something Jayapal wanted. In one incident, a Hill employee who was leaving Jayapal’s office to go work for another House Democrat was asked to stay for a third week beyond the usual two weeks’ notice, according to sources familiar with the situation. Rather than allow the employee to handle the request directly with the new office, Jayapal approached the other lawmaker on the House floor and negotiated the staffer’s final day without their knowledge. The staffer involved declined to provide comment for this story. It’s an instance at least one other former staffer pointed to as pivotal in changing their view on the culture of the office. Evans neither confirmed nor denied particulars of the incident, saying only in his email, “Some staffers in the House of Representatives choose to give two weeks notice while others opt to give more notice or none at all. Choosing to stay one week, two weeks, three weeks, or not a day longer is an employee’s decision.”
Nearly every Jayapal staffer who spoke with BuzzFeed News described the lawmaker as a hard worker who expects her staff to work as hard as she does. But there is a gulf between being a member of Congress with a six-figure salary whose name and image is attached to the work and being a junior staffer making a fraction of that and working almost entirely behind the scenes.
“If you were to divide it into an hourly wage, it would probably be like $12 to $15 an hour” when factoring in the actual number of hours worked, one former staffer said. “Which is not ideal when considering, like, we are advocating for a $15 minimum wage.”
One stat Jayapal has pushed publicly at least twice — that 40% of Americans don’t have $400 in savings — hit home for one staffer who said that they were among those Americans during their time in her office. BuzzFeed News reviewed bank statements that supported this claim.
Many people who spoke with BuzzFeed News acknowledged that structural issues in Congress contribute to staffers’ low pay overall. Just last month, House leadership decoupled staff pay from member pay, raising the ceiling for staffers to nearly $200,000, while the standard salary for a member of Congress is $174,000 a year. Some staffers have argued, however, that the move will only result in senior staffers being paid more, and that, to improve the low wages of junior staffers, there needs to be a change to the Members’ Representational Allowance — the budgets that lawmakers are allocated to conduct official business — which would give offices a bigger pool of money to pay staff.
Regardless, former Jayapal staffers pointed to the starting salary of $52,000 in Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s office as the gold standard for base pay on the Hill, arguing that it’s proof positive that it’s possible to pay junior staffers, like staff assistants, what they consider a living wage in the current system. Ocasio-Cortez’s office has accomplished this by “pinch[ing] pennies” in other parts of her budget, including paying senior staffers less than their counterparts in other Hill offices.
Asked about the pay structure and pay floor in Jayapal’s office, Evans noted that in “nearly every case” her office pays more than that of Ocasio-Cortez. While true, a notable exception is the staff assistant, the lowest-paid position in Jayapal’s office, who makes less than any staffer in Ocasio-Cortez’s office. Meanwhile, according to Evans, Jayapal’s chief of staff makes $54,000 more than Ocasio-Cortez’s.
Much of this information has been passed along through the whisper network of Capitol Hill, where staffers often rely on the advice of friends and professional contacts to decide whether to work for a particular office. Some have even warned people in their circles away from applying to work for Jayapal. One source said that when they left their job, a friend reached out and said he knew someone interested in the role.
“He’s like, ‘I trust you — like, what do I tell him?’” the staffer said. “I was like, ‘Run in the other direction.’ I just wouldn’t put someone I know through [this]; $40,000, $50,000, I’m sorry, it’s just not worth your mental health. I think a lot of us are going to be in therapy for a very long time.” ●