In the past few months, an Instagram account coined “Dear White Staffers” has posted a stunning quantity of anonymous (and unvetted) anecdotes about working in the halls of Congress. The conditions described range from toxic workplaces and sexual harassment to tyrannical bosses and unaddressed substance abuse issues, with the account posting screenshot DMs from former and current staffers detailing what the day-to-day looked like in their respective offices. Overwhelmingly, contributors say they are overworked and underpaid in jobs that promised to fulfill their sense of purpose but have fallen short even by that standard.
I was one of them, and this is a first-hand account and my own account of what it is like to work in our government.
“Fuck I hope you die.” Really bright and happy quote to start of the morning. This is a fraction of what it’s like to work for a member of Congress.
“We don’t get into this to make money.” We say it out of reflex. We also say it as a justification. I was hired in a low-level staff position after multiple unpaid internships and didn’t earn enough to rent in the same place I worked. I worked two jobs to make ends meet. Again, I was thankful. I reminded myself that I was not in this to make money. I was receiving a student loan payment. It was an enormous help. I am very thankful for that.
But I’m also frustrated. My time working for a member of Congress gave me scars. I was diagnosed with a serious anxiety disorder two years in. I began seeing a therapist weekly and much of the conversation was driven around my work. I began medication and tried to rationalize why I was doing this. I spent repeated nights crying about work, stressed about tomorrow. Crippling anxiety woke me up in the night. My partner and family began to notice.
I also began drinking more to numb the anxiety and feelings of stress—a very common coping mechanism for those working for members of Congress that’s been detailed in many @Dear_White_Staffers accounts. During my time in D.C., I saw it firsthand. I always described it as a “work hard, play hard” environment. But now, I see the ugly underbelly of addiction, depression, and hopelessness that runs through the foundation of our nation’s government.
Staffers are the backbone of Capitol Hill. And yet, congressional offices are woefully understaffed. By the time I left, a huge chunk of the work I was doing was not even on my job description. I hear what you’re thinking: a lot of people are overworked. First of all, we shouldn’t be—and the quiet uprising among the ranks on Capitol Hill comes as employees from a range of industries are demanding better treatment. But secondly, stretching staffers isn’t just bad for their morale, but bad for the people we’re hired to serve. Hiring more staff members and paying them fairly would help us to do better work for you.
While some current or former Republican staffers have shared their accounts, discussions around @Dear_White_Staffers have focused on the progressives whose public statements run contrary to their staff’s own experiences. That is an enormous problem. We cannot let this narrative drive the conversation. This truly is an issue that affects both sides of the aisle. Focusing only on the progressives who don’t always live up to their standards lets the conservatives have none off the hook. This is unacceptable.
The experiences detailed to @Dear_White_Staffers speak to a fundamental breakdown in our society. Like those in other low-paying but essential government positions, staffers do this work because they want to make a difference. Many of us believe in our work and in our boss’s ultimate goals for the country. We want to make people’s lives better, but at what cost to ourselves? In many ways, it is a “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” moment. We are turning the wheels and keeping the machine moving.
We stay in these jobs because our loans get paid, we get health care and dental care. Raising the pay for Congress is integral, just as it’s important for everyone to have access to health care and student loan assistance.
The moral of this story is that without adequate pay and time off our government will continue to crumble.