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‘Working myself to death’: Capitol Hill staffers describe the second jobs and side gigs they have to take to survive on low pay

  • Capitol Hill staffers often have to resort to working second jobs to supplement their low salaries.
  • Retail, gig-economy, and service-industry jobs are frequent options.
  • Staffers tell Insider that the second jobs add to an already stressful workload and lead to burnout.

The next time you order takeout in the DC area, your delivery person might work for Congress.

Given no choice but to accept startlingly low salaries in exchange for the privilege of working on Capitol Hill, many interns and junior staffers to America’s most powerful — and wealthy — politicians take second jobs to survive in Washington, DC, one of the most expensive cities in the country.

Some staffers and interns go for gig-economy roles like

Postmates
, Uber, and DoorDash, while others work as baristas and bartenders. For those who struggle to afford a professional wardrobe, retail jobs help provide additional wages and a discount on clothes. 

While it’s common for Americans to work second jobs to make ends meet, civic groups and staffers say that low pay on Capitol Hill pushes out talented staff and creates an environment in which employees from privileged backgrounds have an edge in building long-term careers.

“You could tell when certain people kind of came from money and didn’t have to” work second jobs, one former staffer to a House Republican said. “I have some friends that didn’t need to because they came up from a wealthy upbringing. … They were comfortable. Others were kind of like, ‘OK, yeah, I need to really do some extra jobs because this is not livable.'”

Insider spoke to five current and former staffers who had worked second jobs as a way to compensate for what one former senior Democratic House aide called “poverty wages.” They described exhaustion and burnout from pulling double duty, their only days off eaten up by delivering takeout or grabbing graveyard shifts at clothing stores. Some spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared losing their jobs or hurting their careers by speaking out.

“It’s tough for the normal traditional staffer because that is easily a 50- to 60-hour week,” said one former House and Senate aide who started out at $27,0000 a year and had to take a second job at apparel company J.Crew. 

When you add on the additional hours for a second job, he said, “you just burn yourself out to stay afloat.”

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Four Capitol Hill staffers wearing masks behind a velvet rope barrier in an office hallway

Staff members wait for lawmakers to exit a Senate Republican policy luncheon in the Hart Senate Office Building in May 2020.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images


An open secret

The fact that many congressional employees take on second jobs has been an open secret on the Hill for years. But when some staffers do seek outside work, they face repercussions.

Audrey Henson, who was a Republican House aide making $25,000 before she founded the internship-placement program College to Congress, said she faced pushback from her manager when she took a bartending job near the Hill.

“I would work until 2, 3 in the morning on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday night. I’d come into Congress absolutely exhausted,” she said of her job, which she held from 2013 to 2014.

“Whenever I was having to pick up more shifts at the bar, and then when I ended up getting a weekend job, I was talked to by my chief of staff about priorities,” she told Insider. “And he was like, ‘This job should be your priority.”’

“I said, quite frankly, it is. I’m only doing these other jobs so that I can give you more,'” Henson said. “‘Trust me, this is my only priority. Those jobs allow me to afford this job.'”

She worked at Union Pub, a popular watering hole on Capitol Hill.

“I was like, I’m up here to work in Congress, and I’m putting in equal hours at Union Pub. There’s an issue with this picture,” she said. “And I wasn’t alone.”

Union Pub spokesperson Sam Sanchez said that, “pre-pandemic, Capitol Hill staffers made up a good portion of our staff working as part-time servers or bartenders — more than 50% at times.”

One current Democratic House staffer, who started in DC before eventually making her way back to a district office, worked at a law firm and a retail store to make it through her part-time, unpaid Senate internship.

“I would do a shipment shift at like 3:30 in the morning, go to the law firm, and go to my internship,” she said. “I was working seven days a week. … I wanted to work somewhere I could buy work clothes because it’s very expensive.”

After her predawn store shift, “I would leave at 7, go catch the Metro” to her law firm gig, she said. 

As a part-time Senate intern, she didn’t get any travel benefits.

“I spent $260 a month on my Metro,” she said.

Even after getting a full-time role with a committee, she continued to work her $10-per-hour retail job on the weekends to have enough spending money and afford work clothes.

“It was exhausting all the time. But in my mind it’s what I had to do for the job on the Hill,” she said. I didn’t have much of a social life. I kind of missed out on a few years of my 20s just working myself to death.”

Crowds gather under a sign reading Union Pub, several American flag pennants and a television

Union Pub, a popular bar near Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.


ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images



‘I was giving up a lot’

Other Hill veterans echoed the detrimental impact of holding a second job while working full-time in Congress. Instead of using weekends to recuperate from weeks of late-night votes, political chaos, and a stressful office environment, they had to spend their time finding ways to make money.

The former Republican House staffer started driving for Postmates to bolster his $30,500 salary.

“I would typically do it Friday evening, Saturday, Sunday,” he said. He could make about $200 to $300 a month from Postmates but had to “really grind to make those numbers.”

“I was making money, to have extra money, but I was also giving up a lot,” he said. “And it was just really hard sometimes to do my second job because I wanted to go out, I wanted to have fun, I wanted to just be lazy on a Saturday or Sunday. I wanted just to be able to relax.”

Sometimes, the staffers said, the stress affected their physical health, too. One current staffer told Insider that the exhaustion of working sunrise Starbucks shifts on top of her Hill internship made her hair fall out.

“I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep. I was looking very tired,” she said. “I was breaking out a lot. My hair was not in great shape — it was thinning out.”

A line of Capitol Hill staffers stand to the side of a committee hearing underneath a monitor displaying the hearing.

Hill staffers follow a committee hearing at the House of Representatives.

Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images


‘They’re missing out on the most talented people’

House and Senate offices and committees have only so much money to spend, and that allotment must fund everything, including travel, office supplies, direct mail, and staff salaries. Each office functions like its own business, determining pay and the number of workers and interns. There is no formal human-resources office on Capitol Hill that can help regulate pay for certain jobs, and the pay band system that exists across the federal government to standardize salaries doesn’t apply to Congress.

On June 14, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and more than 100 Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee to demand an increase in the Members’ Representational Allowance, the pool of funding that is distributed equally among all House offices. 

“For years, pay and benefits for the staff of Member offices, leadership offices, and committees have fallen farther and farther behind what is offered in the private sector,” the lawmakers wrote. 

A few days later, the House Appropriations Committee released its legislative funding bill that calls for a $134 million increase to the MRA. It would also increase the spending for intern pay and committee budgets. 

But there’s no guarantee that the extra money to the MRA would go toward bolstering staff salaries. And many House offices still don’t properly use the money available for internships, said Carlos Vera, executive director of the advocacy group Pay Our Interns.

Low pay is simply accepted as the cost of admission into the legislative branch, and many job candidates fear attempting to negotiate with hiring managers because of the scarcity of these opportunities.

But Henson, who bartended, said it’s long past time for that to change. Forcing staffers to work themselves to the point of burnout hinders their ability to do their jobs for the American people, she said.

“What other profession do we ask full-time professionals to be a barista on the side?” Henson said. “What if you had professional athletes leave practice every day to work at Starbucks? Would they be winners? Would the teams be getting the best talent? No.”

“That’s what’s happening in Congress,” she added. “They’re missing out on the most talented people because they’re not paying them.”

 

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