Risky business

Jeff Sagnip knows he has reason to be thankful. He’s married with four kids, ages 4 to 12, and holds down two jobs that he enjoys.

But in nine short months, he’ll be joining more than 600 other congressional staffers who could be looking for work because their bosses are retiring or seeking another office.

Sagnip is luckier than staffers for many of the other 31 House members who are retiring. While his job as spokes­man for Rep. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) will end, Sagnip has a night job of sorts as a spokesman for Republican congressional candidate Chris Myers, who hopes to replace Saxton.

Such is the life of a House staffer, who at best has two years of job security.

“There’s going to be so much change come November,” said Clayton Hall, chief of staff for Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), who announced his retirement last December. “There’s going to be a lot of people looking for jobs.”

A half-dozen Democratic House members are slated to leave office, and given the 29 House GOP retirements this term — four thus far and 25 planned — a substantial number of House aides will be looking for work.

That has some GOP House staffers concerned that if the seats go Democrat, they will face an especially tough job market. The situation is similar in the Senate, where several Republican senators are retiring and several more face competitive races.

“Say you’re working for a Republican in a state where it goes [Democrat], it’s just as traumatic as a line worker in Ohio who loses their job to NAFTA,” said Steve Wymer, spokesman for retiring Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.).

Wymer has decided to continue working for Allard, even though he knows it might cause him to pass up a potential job opportunity on the way.

“It’s the kind of situation where you would hope that prospective employers would respect that and work with folks on that,” said Wymer, who plans to begin job-hunting this summer. “I’ve made a personal decision that I’m not going to worry about it until summer and see what happens. My wife works here in the Senate too, we’ll just keep working.”

Sometimes friends give him a hard time about working for a boss who is retiring, but he said he takes it in stride. “The senator’s not operating in any way like he’s retiring,” Wymer explained. “Some of my friends will jokingly say, ‘Well, I don’t work for a retiring senator,’ and I just look at them and say, ‘You have no idea. My boss is working harder than ever.’”

Though the fear of unemployment weighs heavily on their minds, many staffers, like Wymer, are not eager to cut strings to the Hill and are hesitant to begin searching for new jobs.

“Like most people in my situation, I’m torn between my loyalty to my boss and what has to be loyalty to my career and my family, and so I keep telling myself that in a month or two it will probably be time to start looking,” said one chief of staff who preferred to speak anonymously because his boss, a retiring Republican member, is in the midst of another campaign. “But I can admit that in a month or two I could very well be saying the same thing.”

While the overwhelming number of retiring GOP members has some staffers wary, others are hopeful.

“It’s going to be an uphill battle for our conference, but I’m confident we’ll come out on the other end,” said Pat Creighton, spokesman for retiring Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.).

Some staffers are working for House members who are not seeking reelection, but instead are running for higher offices. These aides face a slightly different situation: If their boss succeeds, it could grant them a job for up to six years; if not, it could land them in the unemployment line.

“Any way you look at it, we’re going to have one month from November to December, win or lose, to close down the office,” said Marissa Padilla, spokeswoman for Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who is running for retiring GOP Sen. Pete Domenici’s seat. “It’s a big task when you have a member who’s been there for almost a decade.”

“We understand the risk you take, but in a way it’s the ultimate motivating factor to do your job, because if you don’t, you’re out of one,” said Brian Phillips, spokesman for Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who also is running for Domenici’s seat. “If for no other reason, [it is about] job security.”

Aides have to worry not only about their own futures, but also those of their families. Half of Allard’s 35 staff members are married with children. His legislative director has three kids, and another staff member just had twins.

“I do worry about health benefits, life insurance and those things, but it goes hand-in-hand with being confident that I’ll find a job and so those things will come with it,” said a GOP member’s chief of staff, who has three children.

When a lawmaker announces they won’t return the following year, the chief administrative officer steps in with instructions on what must happen before the office closes, from the optional archiving of material to finances to guaranteeing staffers receive their last paychecks. Though most House aides facing unemployment frequently network for job openings through connections made over the years, the internal HouseNet service also posts employment vacancies.

The CAO offers staff members assistance with fine-tuning their resumes to narrow in on jobs they are interested in, both on and off Capitol Hill. There is also emotional and psychological counseling for aides who may be having a tough time leaving offices they’ve helmed for years.

Higher-level staff members often take it upon themselves to help their colleagues find work. Ron Rogers, spokesman and chief of staff for retiring Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), was hired in May 2007, months before the embattled congressman announced his retirement in January. He said he was hired in part to ease staffers through a potential retirement process.

Other senior staff members said they were trying to make certain everyone in their offices was either employed or on their way to furthering their career by the end of the year.  

“I’ve done this before so I’m telling everyone on my staff, don’t jump at the first thing, but also don’t be afraid to go interview,” said the Republican chief of staff who requested anonymity. “No one here is going to feel bad about that.”

Despite all the uncertainty, many aides agreed they would not trade the experience of working on the Hill for a more stable job.

“At the end of the day all the difficult things that could happen as far not getting reelected and not having a job anymore, the hours or maybe the instability in it, those are all kind of wiped out by the fact that you have the opportunity to make a difference,” Padilla said.