Report knocks Senate staff pay scale as unclear, lacking transparency
Senate plans overhaul of pay structure
LEADERS IN THE Massachusetts Senate are vowing to overhaul the pay structure for Senate staff, after a confidential report found that the Senate lacks transparency in how salaries are set and has no consistency in job titles and roles. The Senate’s struggles to ensure fair pay for its own staff come despite Senate leadership in passing legislation to reduce the gender pay gap in Massachusetts.
“Unlike some state legislative offices, the Senate does not have a formal employee pay plan with market-based ranges designed to promote internal pay equity and external competitiveness,” said the 114-page report, which was conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures and released to Senate leadership in November 2021. It had been confidential since then but was reported on by the Boston Globe Thursday. CommonWealth independently obtained a copy.
A lack of consistent job titles “breaks with best practice in crafting classification and compensation systems and potentially undermines the Senate’s goal of having a more equitable and consistent pay system,” the report found. “It also can lead to employee frustrations, as a system that lacks consistency can be perceived as lacking fairness.”
Sen. Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat and former State House staffer who is vice chair of the Senate Committee on Personnel and Administration, said in response to the report that the Senate is working on establishing a new employee classification system, which it will roll out by the July 1 start of the next fiscal year. He said the Senate has hired a consultant to develop the new system. Each staffer is being asked to provide information about their education and experience so they can be put in the proper place within the salary scale. Crighton said any staffer who would get a pay raise under the new classification system will receive it, but no staffers will see their pay adjusted downward.
Although the details are still being worked out, Crighton said the goal will be to create a transparent pay scale, where staff know how much money they can expect as they advance. “The ultimate product of this exercise is there will be clear, transparent classification system where folks…would know levels of expectation, and there would be some certainty,” Crighton said.
Senate President Karen Spilka said she is “committed to putting job classifications in place quickly.”
“I began the process of reviewing and updating the Senate’s approach to staff salaries as soon as I became Senate President in 2018,” Spilka said in a statement. “We began with implementing pay equity, which is a policy I championed for the whole state as a legislator, and have also introduced a generous parental leave policy for staff in line with the Paid Family and Medical Leave law I also championed. I’m proud of the work that we have done, together, as a Senate to modernize and professionalize our current compensation and job classification process to ensure greater predictability and stability for all Senate employees.”
According to a Senate spokesperson, even before the NCSL study, the Senate increased the salaries of all Senate employees in 2019, while raising the lowest salaries significantly and bringing pay parity to staff who were doing comparable jobs. In May 2021, it raised salaries by another 6 percent, and added a $500 work-from-home stipend. It increased parental leave benefits from eight weeks to 20 weeks, of which 16 weeks are paid.
In 2016, Massachusetts passed an Equal Pay Act, which went into effect in 2018. The new law prohibited employers from asking about salary history and strengthened the existing equal pay for equal work requirement. The law led to many employers reexamining their wage scales. Spilka was among the champions of the new law, and the Senate commissioned the study in 2020 to make sure the body was meeting its obligations as an employer. The study did not look at staff salaries in the House.
According to the report, the process of setting Senate staff salaries changed under the new law. Previously, each senator determined their staff’s salaries, based on a budget provided by the Senate president’s office. Under the new law, the Senate counsel and the Senate president’s office set staff salaries based on a new hire’s job description and experience. But the report said that while this centralized process uses rational criteria and a consistent process, “it is not a process that is clear and accessible to most Senate employees.” Staffers quoted in the report said the process appears unclear, unfair, and provides the opportunity for preferential treatment by the Senate president’s office.
Part of the challenge is that there are 106 unique job titles within Senate staff. This is because senators have latitude to create job descriptions that are particular to their office – for example, a senator with limited staff might have a single person functioning in a hybrid role like director of communications and constituent services. Because staff roles are tied to their member’s position in the Senate, there are also instances when a staffer’s role changes (for example, if their member loses a committee chairmanship), but their title and pay do not.
Crighton said in addition to working on the new classification system immediately, senators will consider the report’s other recommendations, like creating a performance review system, in the future.
In May 2021, the Senate raised the minimum entry level salary for staff from $43,000 to $45,580. In its pay recommendations, the NCSL study suggests a salary for the lowest level positions ranging from $43,000 to $68,800, depending on qualifications and experience. The highest-level positions – chief of staff to the Senate president and Senate counsel – would earn between $102,085 and $163,335.
Mark Martinez, a former legal counsel and budget director for Sen. Pat Jehlen who is now running for state representative, is one of the founders of Beacon BLOC, an organization of State House staffers of color that has been fighting for more equitable working conditions. “It’s a long report, but summed up it’s we aren’t paid well, our pay rates aren’t transparent, and that leads to inequities and high turnover – which is what Beacon BLOC has been saying from the beginning and staffers have been saying forever,” Martinez said.Martinez said when he became a bar-certified attorney in Massachusetts, he asked his boss for a raise. Spilka’s office granted him a new job title, but not a raise. Martinez said he was told to hold off until the salary report was published. But he worries that now that the report is out, Senate leaders will not follow its recommendations.
“Staffers have been made to feel invisible, or like our work isn’t valued or important even though we know we make the building run,” Martinez said. “It’s really disheartening when most of our bosses at one point or another talked about the value of work and treating workers properly and making sure everyone gets equal pay and a living wage. It seems that commitment kind of ends once you walk through the State House doors.”