Do legislative staffers deserve a raise, too?

Data poor on worker pay, diversity, and equity

NOW THAT MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATORS have secured increased compensation for themselves, they should take a hard look at the pay levels of those who work for them. Fair and livable wages should be the norm for all workers whether they are employed by private, nonprofit, or public entities. Those who step up into a public service role as a legislative aide, budget analyst, chief of staff, or any of the other positions essential to our representational democracy deserve to be compensated fairly and adequately.

Yet it’s unclear whether this is the case here in Massachusetts. While earnings data are available through Massachusetts Open Checkbook, no titles are provided for employees listed and it’s not possible to systematically examine salaries by position, by legislative office, or by the race, ethnicity, or sex/gender identity of staff members.

There may never be an ideal moment to address the topic of pay for those who work in the Legislature. We’ve already experienced a round of 9c cuts. And the upcoming budget debates will undoubtedly demonstrate that state revenues are not unlimited. There are many needs to be met through our state budget – particularly given that federal funding changes will likely affect programs and services in the Commonwealth as demonstrated by MassBudget’s recent report.

Nonetheless, three reasons should compel legislative leaders and lawmakers to conduct a thorough and transparent study of legislative staff compensation levels and make adjustments as needed.

First, even with the November 2016 cost-of-living adjustment of approximately 6 percent provided to employees in the House of Representatives, we don’t know – and should – if staff salaries in either chamber are commensurate with staff responsibilities. Nor can we tell if existing pay rates are competitive or comparable with jobs outside of the State House or in other sectors.

Many legislative staffers shoulder tremendous responsibility in the policy-making process and work tirelessly on behalf of the district and its constituents. Yet needing to take a second job, live with one’s parents, or stay only a year or two in a staff role may be more common than one might think. Let’s face it. It’s expensive to live in the Greater Boston area. This may be especially true if you have children, are in a single-parent situation, are a first-generation American, from a low-income family, and/or are managing substantial college debt.

Staffers may stay only for a short time in their jobs due to pay, contributing to a “revolving door” situation making it harder to retain talent. Furthermore, pay levels might limit skill and knowledge acquisition to just one budget cycle or legislative session and restrict opportunities for professional development and increasing levels of responsibility. Institutional knowledge is vital in the public policy arena – especially in the Legislature – and is hard to come by when turnover is common, as it appears to be.

Second, there is a pressing need for diversity of perspective and experience among legislative staff. Are legislative staffers representative of the Commonwealth’s residents? Of their district? Those working on important matters affecting the state’s residents and tackling constituent and district concerns should be as diverse as the public – racially, ethnically, culturally, linguistically, and in myriad other ways. With very few people of color – and especially women of color – currently serving as legislators, it’s important to raise one of the questions that guided the work of the 2014 Special Advisory Commission on the compensation of public officials: Are the salaries sufficient to attract and retain highly qualified individuals broadly representative of the general public to these positions? 

It may be that individuals from diverse backgrounds who are driven to make a difference in a public service role may not be drawn to work in the State House given compensation levels that aren’t comparable or competitive with other opportunities to engage in impactful work. Additionally, legislative staff roles can provide one pathway to elective office. Working in the State House provides unparalleled knowledge and training experience.  Such learning and networking opportunities should not be limited due to low levels of compensation. This is particularly the case when the diversity of perspective that is so essential to the policy making process is lacking.

Third is the issue of pay equity. With last year’s adoption of the Commonwealth’s much-heralded and comprehensive pay equity law, it shouldn’t be a stretch to implement at least some the law’s provisions before it goes into effect in July 2018. Looking inward and examining existing legislative staff positions and compensation rates would allow the Massachusetts Legislature to demonstrate its unwavering commitment to implementing this law and to also addressing any discrepancies that exist in pay for women and for persons of color. Those who work in the State House, those who might in the future, and certainly Massachusetts taxpayers deserve nothing less.

Meet the Author

Christa Kelleher

Research and policy director, McCormack Graduate School’s Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at UMass Boston
Addressing legislative staff pay may not be – and may never be – an issue that incites a groundswell of attention. Yet it’s a matter that deserves consideration by the very same lawmakers who so swiftly and decisively worked to address the issue of their own compensation. An independent legislative staff compensation committee comprised of individuals with staffing and compensation expertise, business leaders, and others knowledgeable about government operations and pay should be established and charged with making recommendations to lawmakers so that any identified inequities or discrepancies may be resolved.

Christa Kelleher, research and policy director of the McCormack Graduate School’s Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at UMass Boston. She served as a legislative aide in the Massachusetts Senate from 1993 to 1996.