Politics

Congress has no real HR department, and that’s a huge problem for staffers dealing with

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  • Every year, hundreds of young people go to work in Congress, hoping for a fulfilling experience.
  • But their experience can turn sour when they face toxic bosses and other workplace issues.
  • The problem? There’s no place to seek redress since Congress has no real human-resources department.

Every year, hundreds of idealistic politicos flock to Capitol Hill, hoping to find fulfilling work and make a difference for their fellow Americans by working for an inspiring member of Congress.

But some end up in a nightmare scenario dealing with workplace abuse or sexual harassment, with few options for seeking recourse when things go south, said current and former staffers, as well as good-government advocates. 

That was the experience of one former Democratic legislative staffer.

“Not a day went by that I wasn’t screamed at,” said the aide, who left in 2016 after enduring a toxic workplace. “At least every other day I would cry at my desk. There was no winning.”

The aide recalled one incident where her chief of staff, her primary antagonist, took her to task in front of her coworkers because she did not like a policy memo the aide had written.

“Her eyes actually bugged out of her face,” the aide said. “She was screaming at a level of volume that I took a step backward. It was that scary.”

But the aide never reported her boss’ abusive behavior; she felt she had nowhere to go. Eventually, she quit, and she never spoke publicly about her experience.

“Hill staff, myself included, are uniformly treated like shit,” the aide said. One of the biggest reasons, she added, was the “complete lack of HR.”

Across the country, workers are questioning their conditions, and things tolerated before the pandemic — such as long hours, unequal pay, perpetual burnout, toxic culture, institutional racism, and abusive managers — are increasingly being scrutinized and condemned. But on Capitol Hill, workplace violations — from bosses throwing screaming fits to huge pay gaps and far more sinister violations — continue to go unreported and unresolved.

Partially out of lawmakers’ self-interest and partially out of institutional inertia, Congress lacks any kind of traditional human-resources department that staffers can turn to. Even three years after #MeToo first hit Congress and prompted some long-overdue reforms, the avenues that exist for employees to seek help are viewed by staffers and advocates as black boxes primarily designed to protect the institution, not the people who work for it.

Current and former staffers told Insider that they didn’t trust or wouldn’t seek help from those offices because of the potential to hurt their careers.

“You see every type of bad behavior — humans behaving badly toward humans,” said Les Alderman, an attorney in Washington, DC, who takes on cases from legislative-branch employees. “Unfortunately, the legislative branch seems to be very good at it.”

Alderman has recently taken on the case of a Black staffer who said she faced a hostile workplace in the office of Rep. Brad Schneider, an Illinois Democrat, after a supervisor made jokes that appeared to reference lynchings, court documents said.

Alderman told Insider that he’s fielded complaints of discrimination based on sex, race, national origin, or disability, as well as workplace-safety problems, and that “sometimes it’s just awful, awful discriminatory harassment and sexual harassment.”

‘You kept your mouth shut’

Lawmakers expected “blind loyalty,” from their staffers, said one former chief of staff. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared career retaliation. Going to an institutional structure for help with a workplace problem would be seen as an “act of disloyalty” by a member, they said.

For the most part, members’ offices and committees handle all personnel matters independently and secretly, with the ultimate goal of protecting a lawmaker from bad press — not to protect employees from toxic behavior. Senior staffers can easily call upon a congressional lawyer for advice on how to handle lower-level employees and shield their bosses from legal fallout.

One senior Democratic aide, who is also a manager, said the odds were stacked in favor of members and superiors, and against rank-and-file employees.

“We have tools to get rid of them, but they don’t have tools to fight back,” he said of staffers.

That structure has inherent problems. If you’re a junior aide and your chief of staff is mistreating you, tough luck: Your chief of staff is the one you’d bring a complaint to. And if it’s the lawmaker, the long-standing policy is to go work somewhere else and keep quiet if you still want a career in politics.

That’s what happened to the former Democratic legislative aide, who spent more than a year enduring outbursts from her chief of staff.

The aide’s father at one point suggested that she sue, but she felt that raising any formal complaint would doom her career. Asked whether she would have considered the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights — then known as the Office of Compliance — the aide scoffed.

“I’d never go to that office,” she said. “You go to that office when it’s like, ‘Things are so untenable, and I’m going to go home and work as a high-school teacher.”

“If you said anything about your office, that was it. You were done. If you wanted to stay working in politics, even off the Hill, you kept your mouth shut,” she said.

“It’s been five years. I’m in a job that loves me,” she added. But even now, she said, speaking to a reporter anonymously about her toxic work culture “still feels risky.”

Capitol Hill has a long history of powerful figures harassing subordinates. In 2017, the late Michigan Rep. John Conyers was ousted from office after multiple former staffers came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment. One staffer was offered a settlement, reported BuzzFeed News, in exchange for her silence. 

Also in 2017, Rep. Trent Franks, a staunch Arizona conservative, resigned after allegations that he offered a female staffer money to be a surrogate mother for his children, and that two female employees feared he wanted to have sex as a way to get them pregnant.

Former Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold resigned in 2018 after reports that he used public funds to pay an $84,000 settlement to his communications director over alleged sexual harassment. Those incidents led to an overhaul in 2018 of how Congress handles allegations against lawmakers.

That same year, Rep. Mark Meadows, who would go on to serve as President Donald Trump’s final White House chief of staff, was rebuked by the House Ethics Committee for mishandling sexual-harassment allegations against a top aide. A total of six women had come forward to accuse Meadows’ chief of staff of inappropriate touching and staring.

A decentralized, secretive enforcement mechanism 

The old cliche about each member’s office functioning like its own business mostly tracks, except in one important way: Many private-sector companies have human-resources departments. Members of Congress and the offices that support their work don’t.

Good-government experts told Insider that’s because Congress, the very employer that needs oversight, got to write its own rules. And the rules are written to protect the powerful.

The Congressional Accountability Act, passed in 1995 and overhauled in 2018, explicitly prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, color, or religion. But the enforcement mechanism is a decentralized alphabet soup of legislative-branch offices that all have different functions. 

Legislative-branch employees can seek help from the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights — a recent rebrand of the Office of Compliance — within 180 days of the incident if they feel they have a serious complaint against their manager or workplace. 

Seeking out the OCWR kicks off a convoluted and secretive process, but it provides a pathway to file a lawsuit. After filing a complaint, an employee can opt for a preliminary hearing on the matter within the OCWR. They can go through more steps within the office or choose instead to file a civil suit. If a staffer makes even the tiniest procedural error, they could lose their ability to sue, Alderman said.

The OCWR also offers voluntary mediation for both parties, to which each side must agree. If a staffer chooses to continue…

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