Legislative staff complain of low pay, long hours
Survey finds 16% of staffers have faced food insecurity
WHEN MAIA RAYNOR started working as a legislative aide for Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston in 2018, she was earning $38,000 a year. She spent 50 to 60 hours a week at her State House job, took service jobs including dog walking on the side, and moved back in with her family to save money on rent.
After the Senate conducted a pay study the following year, the Senate boosted staffers’ pay to $43,000. Raynor was eventually promoted to legislative director, earning $49,000 annually. She left the job in April.
“When I was renting, I couldn’t afford to rent in the district we represented,” Raynor said.
Raynor is among a coalition of current and former legislative staffers who have been raising concerns about wages and working conditions at the State House. On Monday, Beacon BLOC, an organization started to support State House staffers of color, released a survey of over 210 legislative staffers – 60 percent of whom worked in the House and 40 percent in the Senate.
“There is an unfortunate reality that so many people who are coming from campaigns or coming from organizing, there is such a struggle to go and accept jobs at the State House because it usually means taking a pay cut, it usually means having to figure out how to get student loans paid,” Raynor said. “And, unlike in other workplaces, where your education and skills are taken into account for your salary, that doesn’t happen in the State House.”
Raynor said the low pay limits who can work in the State House. “For staffers of color, staffers who are single parents, caregivers, who don’t come from generational wealth, that isn’t an option for us to continue to be silent about this structure,” she said.
Sen. Diana DiZoglio, a Methuen Democrat who helped the staffers distribute the survey, called it “sad but not surprising to hear about how demoralized many of the staffers have been feeling.” DiZoglio said she plans to introduce amendments during this week’s Senate budget debate that would change the base pay to $55,000, give staffers cost of living increases annually instead of every two years, and provide them with health insurance immediately upon employment without the current 60-day waiting period.
Until 2019, legislators were given pots of money and told to spend it however they wanted. That led to inequities since members hired different numbers of staffers and paid them differently. In 2019, after the state passed a gender pay equity law, the Senate conducted a study of Senate staff pay, and set a base pay rate of $43,000 for a legislative aide.
This year, the House and the Senate agreed to a 6 percent cost-of-living pay raise for all legislative staffers, which was announced May 11. The floor for a legislative aide was raised to $44,000. The two legislative branches also provided a $500 stipend to defray the costs of working remotely. The Senate also said it was doubling its paid family leave policy to provide 16 weeks of paid time off to care for a new child, compared to eight weeks previously.
House Speaker Ron Mariano said in a statement, “The House is committed to fostering an open and inclusive environment for all employees, and we are open to suggestions on how we can improve our efforts.” Mariano said the House has provided biannual cost-of-living adjustments to all employees’ salaries in each session since 2012, most recently this month “after a reasonable delay as we evaluated a fuller revenue picture.”
Senate President Karen Spilka said in a statement, “As Senate President, I will never stop working to make the Massachusetts State Senate a safe, inclusive and responsive workplace where our employees are valued and appreciated….The Senate has always valued feedback from its employees and will continue to look for ways to improve the work environment and compensation for staff.”
DiZoglio confirmed that, in the Senate, decisions about how many staff she can hire and their salaries are made by Spilka’s office.
In the House, rank-and-file lawmakers generally have only a single aide, while committee chairs or those in other leadership positions can hire more staff. Decisions about who holds those leadership roles are made by the speaker’s office.
Nicole Eigbrett, who worked as a legislative aide for two different House members from 2017 to 2020, said one of the members she worked for was in her fourth term, but only had a single staff member. So Eigbrett was responsible for the member’s legislative portfolio, constituent services, scheduling, committee work, and more. She was consistently working 50 hours a week, and was never offered a merit-based pay raise, only a cost-of-living adjustment.
“It was absolutely part of the decision I had to make to leave,” Eigbrett said. “Long term, I couldn’t envision building a career there because there was no opportunity to move up in my position, title, or my salary unless through the luck of the draw the legislator I was working for also received a set of promotions, then was granted those bonuses for staff.”
Eigbrett said while she liked her boss, she was frustrated with how inequitably staff and resources were distributed, based on a member’s favorability with leadership. “It’s just really frustrating because myself and so many of my colleagues come into the State House feeling very idealistic and passionate about doing this work and serving the people of the Commonwealth, but within six months to a year become exhausted and burnt out because of the lack of institutional support. We feel we’re completely disposable in the eyes of leadership,” Eigbrett said.
The survey by Beacon BLOC found frustration that pay was not dependent on skill set, so a staffer with a master’s degree or who was bilingual was not compensated for their skills.
Survey respondents, who held a range of staff roles, reported working 50-to-60-hour workweeks, with work required on nights and weekends.
Only half of those surveyed reported being able to support themselves and their dependents on their current salary. Of those who are able to support themselves, 88 percent reported relying on outside sources of income – such as sharing a spouse’s salary or living with family. Many reported extreme anxiety about their financial situation. During the pandemic, many staffers said they had to spend their own money to upgrade their work-from-home equipment.
Performance reviews tied to salary were uncommon in legislative offices, though around half of staffers said their member had asked leadership for a raise on their behalf.
The concerns are not new. A November 2019 study by MassINC, a think tank and the parent company of CommonWealth, flagged the fact that Massachusetts lawmakers have significantly less staff support than comparable state legislatures – an average of 4.5 staffers per member – and half of legislative staff earn less than $45,000 annually.
Isabel Torres worked for Rep. Nika Elugardo of Boston for two years. Torres was earning around $43,000 as Elugardo’s sole staffer. She worked around 50 hours a week doing scheduling, constituent work, managing interns and volunteers, running communications, and attending meetings in the district – what she describes as the equivalent of two to three full-time jobs. While Torres was interested in policy work, Elugardo did her policy work herself because the demands on Torres were already so great.
Torres said part of the issue is a lack of transparency related to salary. “No one on the House side actually knows how things work,” she said.
Mark Martinez, a founding member of Beacon BLOC who works for Sen. Pat Jehlen of Somerville, said the survey confirmed what is already known around Beacon Hill. “I don’t think anyone was unaware of the fact that we weren’t getting paid very well,” he said. But, he added, it is one thing to have anecdotal reports and another to have actual data about staffers’ perceptions.
“What the Legislature likes to always say is you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” Martinez said.