House staff turnover highest in 20 years: study

The American flag is flown at half-staff at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, February 23, 2022.
Greg Nash

Turnover among House staffers is at its highest rate in at least 20 years amid a push among some Democrats to unionize, according to a new study published Monday.

According to LegiStorm, which tracks congressional staff rosters and salaries, 55 percent more House staff left their jobs in 2021 than in the preceding year amid both the COVID-19 pandemic and the attack on the Capitol.

The House staffer turnover rate in 2021 marks the highest since at least 2001, which is the first full year that LegiStorm has salary data.

The staff exodus affected Democrats more than Republicans, who are highly favored to win the House majority in this year’s midterm elections. Democrats lost staff at a 24 percent higher rate than Republicans, according to LegiStorm.

Turnover among House Democratic lawmakers is also at a record high. A total of 31 House Democrats are not seeking reelection this year, which is the highest for the party in 30 years. It’s also only the third time since 1978 that either party has seen at least 30 retirements in a single cycle.

Congressional staffers announced in early February that they would be forming the Congressional Workers Union to push for better working conditions.

The push gained momentum after an Instagram account called Dear White Staffers went viral with anonymous accounts of low-level congressional staff struggling to pay bills and dealing with demanding bosses who often require round-the-clock availability.

Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), a former union organizer, introduced a resolution to formally recognize House staffers’ ability to form a union. As of Monday, 165 fellow Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors.

But the measure has yet to be formally approved by the full House with a vote. It also remains unclear how a House-wide union would function, given that individual House offices have different employment policies.

House Democrats have enacted other measures in the last year to help improve staff retention, which they acknowledge stems from low salaries that aren’t competitive with the executive branch or the private sector.

The omnibus government spending package that President Biden signed into law last week includes a 21 percent funding increase for congressional offices to help increase staff pay.

Members of Congress have not had a cost-of-living adjustment for their own salaries since 2009, which in turn has meant staff salaries weren’t keeping up with inflation either.

Lawmakers originally paused the annual cost-of-living adjustments for themselves to show solidarity with struggling Americans during the Great Recession. But since then, the calls by a handful of lawmakers over the years to reinstate the annual salary increase have been met with wariness about the optics.

House Democrats came close to reviving the annual cost-of-living adjustment in 2019, only to reverse course when several lawmakers in competitive districts raised concerns.

Rank-and-file members of Congress earn $174,000 annually. Their 2022 salaries would be $223,400 if they kept up with the annual cost-of-living increases, according to the Congressional Research Service. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) moved last year to increase the salary cap for staffers to $199,300, meaning that some top aides can now earn more than their bosses.

The move did not establish a salary floor, however. That means entry-level staff can still earn salaries as low as $30,000, which don’t go as far in a city like the nation’s capital with a high cost of living.

Tags Andy Levin Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi
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