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Capitol Hill staffers are burned out and heading for the exits after a hellish year bookmarked by a pandemic and an insurrection

Capitol Hill staffers are burned out and heading for the exits after a hellish year bookmarked by a pandemic and an insurrection

commitee staffer senate staff

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Jose Borjon had a flourishing 12-year career on Capitol Hill until the coronavirus pandemic brought it to an end.

Last June, while Borjon served as chief of staff to Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, his mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer, and later contracted COVID-19. Borjon had to travel home to Texas while continuing to manage Gonzaelz’s affairs and his office remotely.

In October, his mother passed away. In February 2021, he left a government job paying $137,000 and gave notice to his boss that he was jumping over to the private sector with the public affairs firm Akin Gump.

“It was the working from home, it was the level of intensity of being a chief of staff, the recent passing of my mother,” that led Borjon to look for a job outside the public sector, he told Insider.

Even in normal times, working on Capitol Hill is no walk in the park. But after a global pandemic, a year of remote work, feverish partisan rancor surrounding the 2020 presidential election, and an unprecedented terrorist attack inside their place of employment, the thousands of congressional staffers who make Congress run are burning out. Badly.

Current staff and outside experts fear that the exhaustion and trauma are pushing qualified people out the door, exacerbating the long-running problem of brain drain on Capitol Hill while denying lawmakers talented staff as they try to tackle some of the most pressing issues to face the country in generations.

Congress has never garnered much sympathy from Americans. It’s approval rating currently sits at 36%, according to Gallup, and that’s an improvement on last year. The public is much less aware of the often anonymous and overly ambitious Type-A workers who flock to Washington in search of climbing their own career ladders.

“I can easily picture someone reading this story and thinking, tough shit,” said one Democratic senior Senate staffer.

But, this staffer also cautioned: “This is an important institution, you want it to work well. And the conditions right now are very toxic. I think the conditions here are setting the stage for long term problems for our country.”

(Insider DC is committed to covering the pandemic’s toll on the federal workforce. Are you a government worker with a story about burnout or exhaustion? Is there a toxic work environment we should know about? Send tips to the reporter Kayla Epstein at [email protected])

‘Nobody is looking out for us’

Like millions of other American workers, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic forced most congressional staffers to shift suddenly to remote work.

Many of the employees who serve as staffers to the US Congress — handling constituent issues, taking calls, drafting legislation, setting up meetings and town halls with members — are quietly struggling in an environment where working long hours and going above and beyond the job description was the norm before 2020.

Staffers at all levels, from fellows to chiefs of staff and everyone in between, have struggled with burnout, several current and former employees told Insider. They described the line between their work and personal lives, already razor thin prior to the pandemic, being completely obliterated by remote work.

“Staff in general have been feeling like we’re invisible, like nobody is looking out for us,” one Senate legislative aide told Insider. This person had temporarily relocated to the Midwest, and worked remotely since March 2020. While she appreciated that remote work nixed her lengthy pre-pandemic commute and gave her more flexibility over her schedule, the new normal had taken a significant toll.

“It’s not even just tired,” she said. “It’s been constant stimuli for over a year now. You just don’t even feel it anymore, like your work is kind of in a catatonic state.”

“You’re running on autopilot and you can’t even feel the stress anymore,” the legislative aide added. “This had made me consider leaving a lot more seriously than before.”

Both the House and Senate have designated offices that provide counseling to struggling staffers and are equipped to address the unique challenges faced by congressional staff. A coalition called Capitol Strong, a group of government advocacy and research organizations, has also sprung up to provide additional support for staffers who may be struggling.

Some staffers say that their bosses were supportive of the situation. But they struggled to either find the time to use the resources available to them or didn’t think they would help.

“I could go talk about it with somebody, but this situation isn’t changing,” said one fellow who worked on civil rights for a congressional caucus and said she’d experienced burnout.

Captiol Hill Protests

The work itself causes secondary trauma

Capitol Hill staffers are on also the frontlines of the pandemic.

They’re the ones writing the bills delivering trillions of dollars of federal aid as the US economy struggles to recover from sweeping shutdowns. They’re serving as de-facto case workers helping constituents find appointments to get COVID tests and vaccines, collecting stories from across the US with tragic endings, and serving as listening boards about what it means to take care of the sick.

“On many, many days I had to talk to grieving families who didn’t know what to do, they didn’t know who to call to get help to bury their loved ones,” Borjon said. “Many times people were calling to say, ‘My husband’s in the hospital, he hasn’t eaten in 2 days, can you call the CEO of the hospital?'”

“And we would try to raise the issue if I could, but there were so many families,” said Borjon. “I was working, helping these constituents as my mother was gravely ill in the hospital.”

The pandemic also brought civic upheaval in other aspects of American politics. Events like the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, which sparked a renewed focus on the Black Lives Matter movement, and a pandemic-related spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans, added a new layer of distress for staffers of color.

“There was a moment when the George Floyd incident happened last year where I was personally impacted as an African American male and having dealt with issues of excessive police force in the past,” said a former chief of staff to a House member, who left the Hill in early 2021. “You’re confronted with this untenable situation of having to navigate the George Floyd murder, and you’re a congressional staffer, so obviously, people are looking at Congress to do something.”

“That weighs on you when you are confronted with this enormous crisis, that not only impacts you personally, but your family, your loved ones, and the communities you represent,” he said.

Working from home also brought some of the most toxic aspects of staffing a congressional office right into their living rooms. Several staffers recalled the onslaught of hateful messages, death threats, and angry rants that poured into their offices over the past year — most of them taken by junior level staffers manning the main phone line. But instead of going to their office numbers, employees were taking frightening calls at their kitchen table or on the couch.

“People say, that’s what you signed up for,” the legislative aide said. “No, that’s not what we signed up for. We signed up to serve. We didn’t sign up to be under threat of fire, to be verbally abused on phones.”

congrssional staffer with hands up on January 6

“Folks start to tear up or cry”

The stress of working on Capitol Hill only got more complicated at the start of 2021.

That’s of course when a mob of mostly white, pro-Trump rioters violently breached the Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election results, normally a staid and ceremonial event. Members and their staff were forced into hiding, while the US Capitol itself got vandalized with broken glass, graffiti, and even human feces. Five people died during the melee, including a Capitol Police officer.

Some lawmakers have spoken about the mental and physical repercussions of that day. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat, recently revealed he experienced post traumatic stress disorder.

But less publicized was the fallout among the rank and file people who make Congress function. Capitol custodial workers, many of whom are Black and brown, told Insider they felt “degraded” and traumatized by the episode. Office staff were pushed to new levels of anxiety and despair.

Months later, those who still work on the Hill continue to deal with the effects even as a mentality persists in Washington that people are “expected to go on as if nothing is happening,” said the former civil rights fellow.

“I can tell, they’re still struggling,” added the former senior policy advisor who left at the end of 2020. “I’ve had virtual coffees and drinks with folks who start to tear up or cry when you talk about January 6. You can tell they’re still very much struggling emotionally, mentally.”

House leadership has publicly expressed concern about the ripple effect of January 6.

“This pandemic has been grueling for all Americans, including Congressional staff who have managed an arduous, non-stop pace of work to respond to a devastating crisis,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, told Insider in a statement. “These same employees then saw their workplace attacked by terrorists who wreaked havoc and threatened our democracy.

Congress staffers barricade january 6

Turning the ship around

Congress has designated offices that provide counseling to staffers: the House’s Office of Employee Assistance, and the Senate’s Employee Assistance Program. Staffers and federal workforce advocates told Insider the offices had staffed up since January 6 to meet higher demand. The OEA, which has served the House for 30 years, saw the number of interactions they had with employees double in 2020, a spokesman said.

To help supplement the Hill resources, a coalition of government advocacy and research groups formed Capitol Strong, which has resources for managers on the Hill and staffers who may be struggling. They’re holding webinars, training, and publishing guides for staffers at the managerial level that cover everything from mental health to personal safety.

But outside experts interviewed by Insider all agreed that the pandemic and insurrection hadn’t created burnout issues: it had exacerbated existing problems that were already leading to staff exhaustion and turnover.

Increased levels of staffing, higher pay, and more opportunities for advancement and career growth were necessary to staunch the flow of talent heading out the revolving door, Kristine Simmons of the Partnership for Public Service told Insider.

At least one senior member of leadership agrees.

“While private-sector employers have been investing in their workforces with better pay and benefits policies, Congress has failed to do the same,” Hoyer testified on April 15 at a House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress hearing.

But outside experts interviewed by Insider all agreed that the pandemic and insurrection hadn’t created burnout issues: it had exacerbated existing problems that were already leading to staff exhaustion and turnover.

Increased levels of staffing, higher pay, and more opportunities for advancement and career growth were necessary to staunch the flow of talent heading out the revolving door, Kristine Simmons of the Partnership for Public Service told Insider.

At least one senior member of leadership agrees.

“While private-sector employers have been investing in their workforces with better pay and benefits policies, Congress has failed to do the same,” Hoyer testified in mid-April.

Historically, Capitol Hill culture historically isn’t especially adept at self-care. But it’s going to have to get better, said former Rep. Brain Baird, a licensed clinical psychologist who has partnered with Capitol Strong and one of its members, the Congressional Management Foundation.

“There’s just not been enough attention to this, for either members of Congress or their staff,” said Baird, who as a Washington state Democrat helped set up resources for Hill staffers in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Health care is important but we sort of sacrifice ourselves,” Baird added. “Taking care of people, we just don’t talk about it.”

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