The Dear White Staffers Instagram account is a popular meme page targeted at people of color who work on Capitol Hill and in government offices.

In recent weeks, however, it has become a forum for staff members who can anonymously share stories about the challenges they have faced while working for specific members of Congress. And it can have a real impact on both the conditions with which members of Congress work and the change in who will work in Congress.

Earlier this month, a group of congressional officials announced an unprecedented effort to unite into a union. It’s the result of years of work by people who haven’t been doing well in an environment that is still not particularly diverse.

To figure out some misconceptions, these are white collars that require changing clothes, but working in the halls of Congress doesn’t mean you’re making a bank.

Employees, especially at the entry level, can work full-time in Congress and must count on government benefits such as food stamps, or work elsewhere to afford to live.

Take, for example, Don Bell. He now works in his career at the University of Connecticut Law School, but worked for more than three years on Capitol Hill as a Senate staffer in the office of Senator Richard Blumenthal and served as president of the Senate Black Legislative Staff.

He loved the time on the hill and believes that the office received him a scholarship even before he was hired full-time, and contributed to it and supported its development. But in the beginning, he started unpaid work and had a second job that you didn’t expect a congressman to need.

“I was a lawyer during the day, working on politics, and at night – a cashier at Wal-Mart,” – said Bell. “And as you can imagine, those were very long days when I moved from one job to another, just trying to earn it financially. I came to the District of Columbia without getting anything from a family that didn’t have the funds. ”

And it required serious sacrifices.

“By the time I started working full-time in Senator Blumenthal’s office as a correspondent for the judiciary, I had two weeks to default on my student loans,” Bell said. “So I put all my chips in the middle of the table to be able to work on Capitol Hill.”

This may come as a surprise, but these employees often write laws. Members of Congress are public figures and they have a wide range of work, including committee meetings. But when it comes to how the sausage is actually made, the markup meetings – where the bulk of any bill is written – are usually attended by staff, sometimes even low-level ones.

All of these cost issues don’t even take into account internships that haven’t been paid for a long time on Capitol Hill. Considering the cost of living, transportation and other necessities, an internship can cost thousands of dollars. If you stretch every dollar, even some little things can become a problem.

Carlos Mark Vera was an intern at Capitol Hill and the White House.

“These are the little things you usually think of,” Vera said. “You have to wear professional clothes every day. I only had one suit, so my family had to go buy me another one. So it definitely was a struggle.”

His experience, which struggled to afford an unpaid internship, led him to found Pay Our Interns, a group that puts pressure on offices on Capitol Hill and other government agencies to essentially pay their interns. He argues that the lack of payment for interns does limit the circle of those who can do so.

“You need housing, it’s rent, any professional clothing, transportation, and we know that on average an unpaid internship can cost $ 6,000 in three months. So if you don’t have money just lying around, it really makes a lot of people the working middle class is at a disadvantage. ”

There have been some positive changes on this front. Now every office in Congress has money – in every office of the House of Representatives $ 25,000 is set aside specifically to pay for interns.

But these funds did not necessarily lead to Congress offices hiring a representative set of interns.

Last year’s Pay Our Interns report found that 76% of paid Congress trainees were white, although white students make up only 52% of the country’s undergraduate population.

And this gap, which is reflected in both full-time and senior staff, has implications for those who will shape policy. Ruby Robles, a current employee of Capitol Hill and a spokesman for the Association of Hispanic Employees of Congress or CHSA, says it affects many members of the group.

“It simply came to our notice then [are] “Latinos, but some of us have moved to this country,” Robles said. “We want to work in the civil service. It’s an American dream, but problems with higher wages sometimes become an obstacle for many people.”

A poll by Issue One, a non-partisan group seeking to reduce the impact of money on politics, found that 13 percent of all Capitol Hill employees – more than 1,200 people – earn less than the MIT $ 42,610 living wage in Washington. But if you look at the assistant staff, the most common job on Capitol Hill entry-level, that figure jumps to 70%, which is less than the estimated subsistence level in DC.

Low pay sometimes means that the only people who can get these jobs are people who are financially supported by their parents. This leads to the fact that the staff becomes more white and wealthy. And, as many current and former employees point out, this excludes many colored people and people who do not come from a privileged background.

The result is a less diverse workforce. The non-partisan Joint Center for Political and Economic Research estimated in a 2020 report that colored people accounted for only 13.7% of all senior House officials and only 11% of all Senate senior officials.

And that can make a real difference in policy making.

“Congressional staff are essential to ensure that policies are effectively tested and reflect the hopes and aspirations of voters across the country, and so when we don’t have different people, we have the skills to make those decisions. The design of the rooms is much more likely that we are not going to get the best policy for people who are on the first level, at home, ”Bell said.

And while colored workers are at the forefront of this recent push, and many of them are Democrats, the problems we see here affect employees of both parties from different backgrounds.

Audrey Hanson is a former low-income congressman and current candidate for Congress from Republicans in Florida. She was the founder of the College to Congress, a group that provides financial support to interns and congressional staff. She is no longer from the group, but the shock she felt when she found out she would be paid $ 25,000 a year for full-time work still remains with her.

“I will never forget when I filed my tax returns in 2013 as a Capitol Hill employee, and after I submitted them, the first page that came up was,‘ Looks like you’re eligible for Medicaid benefits and food subsidies, ”Henson said. “It was almost a dagger in my heart because I worked for a boss who was against subsidies and who really showed me, wow, how our Congress works, how they treat their employees, it’s the complete opposite.”

Circumstances may have been difficult for many current and former Capitol Hill employees, but people at Hill see in the emergence of recent union efforts and more public criticism of working conditions an opportunity to change the situation.

“I think there’s room for change here, and there’s also going to be a really big push,” Hanson said. “So I hope that, hopefully, the national attention it has garnered will lead to change.”

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