Beacon Hill lawmakers are getting raises, but what about their employees?
For almost two years, I worked as a legislative assistant for a representative from the State of Massachusetts. I was his only staff member, which means I handled constituents’ affairs, handled the calendar and the phone, tabled amendments, drafted talking points, and attended briefings and meetings in the district on behalf of my boss. It required more than 40 hours per week. I was paid $ 42,000.
Massachusetts officials and senators just received a salary increase due to a law passed in 2017. The fact that this increase takes effect during a pandemic in which many have lost their jobs is quite controversial. What strikes me as problematic, however, is that these increases are not being applied at the staff level.
More than half of full-time House employees and a quarter of Senate staff earn less than $ 45,000 per year, while only 4% to 5% of employees earn $ 100,000 per year, according to one. MassINC non-profit organization 2019 report. House and Senate leaders have new annual salaries of up to $ 150,000, The Boston Globe reported. In addition, lawmakers received a 4.89% increase in allowances for travel and office expenses from each lawmaker and are eligible for a base salary increase of 6.46% for the new legislative session, according to NBC 10. Their base salary is now just over $ 70,500, and many of them receive leadership pay on top of that.
Helpers do most of the work in a political office. Their salaries do not reflect their hard work, and it is high time they did.
âIt creates an uneven playing field,â said Ben Forman, research director at MassINC, of ââimbalanced pay distributions. Staff members “don’t need to be paid $ 100,000, but they need to be able to live in Massachusetts,” he said, referring to MBTA rate increase and the fact that Boston is a expensive city to live.
Low wages also mean that people who need money to support themselves and their families cannot apply, which tends to exclude people of color. Forman said this makes it harder for staff of color to access positions of power inside the building. Fewer people of color inside the building leads to fewer diverse voices motivating politics.
The walls of Massachusetts State House in Boston are filled with paintings and portraits of former governors and rulers. It is a beautiful building, with a large staircase in the middle connecting the halls between them. It can be quite surreal to walk into a building with so much history.
Not everyone could feel this. Most of the State House staff are white, and Massachusetts has elected only white males as governor. So walking through these rooms and going up those stairs when you don’t see yourself pictured in these portraits is intimidating.
How, then, can all Commonwealth residents, not just whites and the wealthy, be represented when there are barriers to diversity and equal representation in the State House? By making political jobs more accessible to people of color and low-income people. And raising wages does that.
Mark MartÃnez is Senator Patricia Jehlen’s political and budget adviser and the only black man in the entire Senate to work solely on politics. âIt’s a feeling of isolation,â he said. âNo one is from the same place as me. In terms of mentoring, I have no one to turn to.
It is difficult to quantify the work of employees when it comes to wages, as there are different types of employees with bosses with completely different responsibilities and expectations. Senators have larger districts than Representatives, so they average four to five staff. It is important to note, however, that one district is completely different from another and has unique needs. Some demand more from their legislators. This means that for staff members, the work becomes more intense depending on the district their bosses represent.
Rep. Nika Elugardo, who represents Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill and parts of Brookline and Roslindale, agrees. Not increasing the salaries of helpers not only has a “disproportionately negative impact on staff, it is also a disproportionately negative impact on the district,” she said. “Districts with lower socioeconomic status require more attention than others, and when those districts are understaffed or when staff don’t have the proper tools to meet their needs, everyone loses out.”
As a unique staff member in an office with countless constituent cases, I understood the burden of employees whose bosses represent these districts.
Salary increases for employees aren’t just about work-life balance, or the lack of it, in State House culture. It is also a question of consistency. I stayed in my post for almost two years and know others who are no longer there. At the start of a new session, the State House receives an influx of new staff. A high turnover rate in the building does not help long-term efforts to change policy. Raising the salaries of staff members solves this systematic problem.
So who determines construction wages and how?
The House and the Senate both have different processes. In 2018, equal pay law entered into force, allowing a salary system based in part on merit. But Senate leadership has not been very transparent about how this searches for staff at different levels, according to New England Public Media. Before this law, each senator was given a sum of money to hire as many employees as he wanted, so some senators had more employees than others. The problem here was that there was no floor for staff salaries, so some staff were only paid $ 30,000 for a full-time position at State House. With the Equal Pay Act, a minimum annual salary of $ 43,000 has been established.
Forman of MassINC acknowledges that progress has been made, but said the law âis only scratching the surface. It strengthens the power of leadership and has no transparency around it, so there is no way of knowing who has additional staff and how they are appointed.
The house side is a whole different ball game, with most reps getting enough money to hire just one staff member. Only those in managerial positions can hire more staff. Here is what Senators and Representatives have in common when it comes to staff salaries: They should all ask for a pay rise from executives.
Let it sink in: Advocating for staff salaries is all about political favors.
“Women of color who represent neighborhoods with a lot of poverty and a lot of people of color end up having a disproportionate impact,” said Representative Elugardo.
Greater diversity is also crucial in positions that are closely linked to politics. âYou need a diverse set of lived experiences if you really want to have fairer policies,â MartÃnez said. This is why staffing is of crucial importance. “You should want different people on your team to tell you about what you are doing.”
This is why MartÃnez co-founded BeaconBloc, a group of blacks and other staff of color at State House looking for ways to better recruit, retain and support staff of color. The turnover is so high, he explained, that it creates a hostile environment. Thus, the aim of BeaconBloc is to change this culture and to support legislation that increases diversity at the staff level. But the low salaries paid to staff members hamper these efforts.
Politics is an intense affair. Over time I started making little mistakes here and there that unfortunately for me my boss noticed. Then I started to overthink everything, which made me stall when I should have emailed and tabled amendments to the bill. Some colleagues and friends said I looked tired. I was, because I was not sleeping. I finally decided to quit this job, not because I had stopped believing in the important work being done at State House, but because I was exhausted. I wasn’t giving my work my all because I had no more energy to give.
Pay increases would not solve all of the problems created by systemic inequality at State House. But they would certainly ease many of the burdens that staff members face. As much as I enjoyed my time as an assistant, my mental health and personal life suffered because I did not receive the proper support. It is time for that to change.