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Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s Staffers Aren’t Alone

The Democrat's staffers say they faced high expectations, long hours and low pay, a problem across the board for Congressional staff.

Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal speaking at a podium in front of a banner that says "No Muslim Ban Ever"
Photo via mpac_national/Flickr

On Monday, BuzzFeed News reported an exposé of sorts on the workplace behavior of Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and one of the more prominent House Democrats on the left.

In interviews, 14 former staffers who worked for Jayapal across her five years in Congress described to the publication “a dysfunctional and volatile workplace,” and that Jayapal maintained “an especially harsh office with a boss whose treatment of workers runs contrary to the public expectations she has set for others.”

From BuzzFeed News’ summary of its report:

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.

Former staffers complained about being underpaid and overworked, working 12-hour-plus days without significant breaks, often not being able to take weekend or holiday breaks, and not getting paid enough to offset the costs of owning a car to drive around their boss. Jayapal’s in the 94th percentile for staff turnover from 2017 to 2019 (and 96th for 2021), and LegiStorm data says 15 out of 40 former staffers left after a year (though her office says the number is 12 of 48 former). Six former staffers told BuzzFeed about their need to seek therapy during, and after, working for her office.

The specific stories these staffers tell BuzzFeed News are bad. The former staffers say that Jayapal laid off two people without severance last year, then had one of the staffers go through another interview process for a consolidated role, only to find out that they didn’t get it in a staff meeting. They also said another staffer had to negotiate Jayapal’s pickup schedule on the day of the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, fearing they’d have to return to the building to pick her up. Other witnesses said that Jayapal berated one new staffer publicly, and left them in tears, after a poor interaction with a witness during a House Budget Committee hearing.

Former staff also said that Jayapal once “blamed a staffer for the lawmaker’s personal weight gain because she did not have enough gym time on her schedule.” They also said Jayapal had once gone to a departing employees’ future employer, another House Democrat, to ask if they could stay for another week, without the staffer’s knowledge. It’s worth noting that in all of these incidents, the staffers at the center of them declined to provide their own comments for the story. And yet, more than a dozen people still felt distraught enough about these incidents to share them with a national news publication.

The left has few champions in Democrats. There’s a handful of them, yes, within “the Squad,” and the genuine backers of legislation like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, but they are few and far between. But every now and again, one of these champions, like Jayapal, will say or do something, or many things, in the case, that remind us that there are no heroes nor saviors in electoral politics. Elected officials who have a public record of supporting marginalized people, workers included, are just as capable of creating the conditions that they seek to dismantle.

And it’s disappointing, to say the least. It’s disappointing for the people who believed in them and their mission but more so devastating for the people who experienced these problems in her office, and the people who rely on Jayapal for her advocacy and power to improve the ways that our government has already failed them.

In many of these cases, Jayapal’s office denied these incidents, or provided comments about her records on diversity, or accused certain claims of being sexist or rooted in stereotypes. Aside from the straight denials, none of these arguments really challenge the accusations leveled against her. It’s true that Jayapal is likely held to a higher standard that other Congress members, specifically because she is an Asian American, a woman, and a champion for marginalized communities; it’s also true that none of those qualifiers would make her incapable of creating a workplace that her staffers found untenable.

The BuzzFeed News piece tries to contend with this nuance as well, by noting that behavior and workplace conditions that were once considered a rite of passage on Capitol Hill are no longer acceptable to a new generation of workers. And while these issues appear to be acute in Jayapal’s office, the Buzzfeed piece notes that “Many people who spoke with BuzzFeed News acknowledged that structural issues in Congress contribute to staffers’ low pay overall.”

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This is something that New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has garnered press for herself, BuzzFeed News noted, lowering senior staff pay in order to compensate junior staff more. It’s something that Jayapal could consider herself, but the need to increase staff salaries remains an institutional problem. There is also the reality that Jayapal was elected to cochair the CPC before the end of her first term, and that her national profile rose relatively quickly. Her office likely found itself overwhelmed without the institutional support and experience that more-tenured members of Congress have access to.

These are not excuses for poor working conditions that lead to burnout, or for the public berating and unexplained expectations. There is no excuse for fostering a staff that needs mental health services and questions whether they want to keep working in public service. But it says a lot that it took open hypocrisy from a pro-worker legislator to unearth conditions that have been around for far longer than Jayapal has been in office.