Senate staff get raises and pay scale changes – but no union

Staffers worry new compensation system seeks to head off union push

MASSACHUSETTS SENATE staff seeking to unionize have gotten a big portion of what they want – minus the union.

Senate President Karen Spilka on Wednesday announced a new compensation system for Senate staff, which standardizes job classifications and aligns them with pay grades and salary ranges that are based on work experience, training, and education. The change provides a minimum 10 percent pay increase for all current Senate staff and sets a new pay floor of $50,138, compared to the current $45,580.

Spilka said the plan is the culmination of work she has done since becoming president “to modernize and standardize our HR procedures while creating a more equitable and inclusive workplace where staff can serve the people of the Commonwealth while building a career.” She called it “an important step towards the Senate attracting a more diverse workforce and creating a foundation for future work on staff development and compensation.

The plan is the direct result of a study conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures, commissioned by Spilka’s office and released to Senate leadership in November 2021. That report found the Senate lacked consistent job titles, and salaries are set through the president’s office in a way that lacks transparency.

The new plan builds on other HR improvements Spilka made since taking office in 2018, creating two new minimum salaries, improving paid leave policies, and passing sexual harassment policies.

Yet staffers who announced in early April that they want to unionize say the new pay plan does not alleviate the need for a union. That effort is in limbo because legislative employees do not have a legal right to unionize, and Spilka has said there are potential legal issues with recognizing a union.

The Massachusetts State House Employees Union, the official group pushing for the union, wrote in a statement posted on Twitter, “When we organize we win. Today the MA Senate finally announced the rollout of livable wages for all Senate staff. However, the fight for recognition and a seat at the table in our workplace continues.” The statement said there are other outstanding issues, like better protections against sexual harassment, measures to support diverse staff, annual cost of living increases, standardized onboarding for new staff, an independent human resources department, and collective bargaining.

The plan was presented to employees via a webinar conducted by Senators Michael Rush and Brendan Crighton, who lead the Senate Committee on Personnel and Administration. Several staffers said the fact that there was no way for staff to ask questions or discuss it is symbolic of the problems they face when they are not at the decision-making table.

“It took place on a webinar, and like most webinars attendees aren’t seen or heard, which feels very emblematic of how many staffers, myself included, feel right now,” said one staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she fears job repercussions. The staffer said she is happy about the new pay system, which she said illustrates the power of staff organization, but staffers still want a seat at the table to push for other changes.

A second staffer, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, similarly called it a “good step forward” and a demonstration that activism can deliver results. But she said when dealing with issues like staff salaries, benefits, and training, “it’s important to have an ongoing means to provide feedback in a meaningful way and not just begging for scraps.”

Mark Martinez, a former staffer and one of the founders of Beacon BLOC, an organization of legislative staffers of color advocating for better working conditions, believes the pay change is “100 percent in response to the unionization efforts.” But he worried that legislative leaders see it as a way to head off unionization. “I think it’s to convince people ‘oh you don’t need a union, we’ll just pay you after you yell at us for a few years to do it,’” Martinez said.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Martinez said there are other outstanding issues, and he too expressed frustration that management arrived at the pay scale without staff input. “The Senate president has continued to do these things and implement these changes without any input from the staff, then we’re left with a bunch of questions. Where does this come from, what does this mean, what happens after this? Questions that wouldn’t be arising if staff were at the table when decisions were being made,” Martinez said.

A Senate spokesperson said staff were surveyed about their job content and about their experience and education, and staff and members were asked to provide input about the results of the independent compensation report.

This story has been updated with a response from the Senate spokesperson.