Congressional staffers say low pay, long hours has them eying new jobs

Low pay is the leading reason congressional staffers leave their jobs, according to a new study from the Congressional Management Foundation and the Society for Human Resource Management.

The survey, which was released Monday, found that 46 percent of staffers said they would look for a new job within a year because of a “desire to earn more money.”

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Staffers in Washington were more likely to say they plan to make a career change. While 63 percent of staffers in D.C. indicated a desire to find a new job, only 36 percent of district staff said the same.

Brad Fitch, the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, said staffers are vastly underpaid compared to other professions.

“Confessional staff get 20 to 30 percent less than they'd get in the private sector,” Fitch told The Hill. “You go up in management and into the hierarchy of congressional staff and that differential gets much bigger. You have a Senate chief of staff that can walk out the door tomorrow and probably get twice their pay in the private sector.”

Capitol Hill has long suffered from a high turnover rate given the long hours, low pay, and intense working environment. Votes are often held in the evenings, and the schedule around the holidays is often unpredictable. This past year, the Senate worked on New Year’s Eve, while the House worked on New Year’s Day.

Only 48 percent of staffers in the study said they have adequate time for a personal life.

“These days we just work, work, work … in terribly crowded and inadequate facilities with no privacy, for extremely long hours, and not knowing whether or not we can count on Congress being in session or not for Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays. These jobs are very hard on family life, and frankly, I’m getting tired of it,” one House staffer told the study’s researchers.

Staffers also said Congress’s low approval rating — 14 percent in an August Gallup poll — adds to the stress of the job.

But despite the negatives, 80 percent of staffers expressed overall satisfaction with their work on Capitol Hill. And that number is higher than the general work force, which reports a 40 percent rate of job satisfaction, according to Society for Human Resource Management research.

“People are willing to make sacrifices if they feel their work is meaningful,” Fitch said.

The study found that 94 percent of staffers said that they stay on the job “because they believe what they’re doing is meaningful,” while 92 percent cited “their desire to help people.”

The study, “Life in Congress: Job Satisfaction and Engagement of House and Senate Staff,” is the last in a three-part series of studies undertaken by the Congressional Management Foundation and the Society for Human Resource Management.

The first study, published in October 2012, looked at work/life issues for congressional staff. The second study, published in March 2013, examined the job of House members from the lawmaker’s perspective.

Monday’s survey found that while some staffers said they were disillusioned, they overwhelmingly expressed a dedication to public service and pride in working for their country.

One job perk that staffers particularly appreciate is their healthcare coverage.

In the survey, 66 percent of staffers cited their healthcare/medical coverage as the top benefit of their jobs, while congressional retirement plan came in a close second at 61 percent.

Congressional staff also vented frustrations about dealing with angry phone calls.

“When you get chewed out over the phone by a constituent, it’s almost like getting chewed out over the phone by your boss. And that has a negative psychological impact,” Fitch said.

He said it was important for lawmakers and managers alike to praise the staff for their work.

“You can’t under value two words — thank you — especially when it comes from a member,” he said.

The study noted the “most common problem” in offices was the inability of a lawmaker to set priorities and balance that with resources. The result is the staff becomes overburdened and without direction.

“Frankly it’s not the result of them being bad managers,” Fitch said of the lawmakers, “it's them wanting to be everything to everyone. They're politicians. They like saying yes to everybody.”=

The study offered three recommendations for Congressional offices: set a clear direction for the office, foster a positive organizational culture, and institute a performance management system.

The study’s authors came to their conclusions based on how “dedicated and motivated and engaged this work force is and how different that is from the general work force,” Fitch said.

For the survey, 1,432 congressional staffers were surveyed. Of those, 72 percent worked for the House and 28 percent worked for the Senate, with 55 percent employed by Democrats, 43 percent worked for Republicans, and 2 percent for Independents. Data was collected from August 8 through Oct. 4, 2011.