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'A living wage': Ocasio-Cortez's entry-level pay for staff set a new bar for the House

Aarthi Swaminathan
Finance Writer

This post has been updated.

New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s promise to pay entry-level staffers a minimum of $52,000 a year is a 34% increase compared to the median annual salary of staff assistants in the House nationally, according to an analysis by Yahoo Finance.

Using data from research firm LegiStorm, Yahoo Finance found that the median pay for an entry-level staff assistant job in the House is $34,231 nationally. And looking at 10 states in the northeast — Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont — the median annual salary is $36,527 a year.

Yahoo Finance tallied 102 total staff assistants across those states. AOC’s office entry-level pay is a 29.7% increase compared to the median staff assistant salaries in other House offices in the area.

New York's congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez is paying the highest rate for entry-level staffers on the Hill. Others in the region are paying much less — with Vermont paying the lowest salary. (Graphic: David Foster)

“Our hope is that this challenges the status quo, and offices pay junior staff a lot more,” Claudia Pagon Marchena, a 22-year-old legislative correspondent who handles the staff assistant duties for Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), told Yahoo Finance. “Staffers are the most hardworking people on the Hill. … Congress needs to do better about paying entry-level staff so that they aren’t forced to take second jobs.”

Pagon Marchena, who confirmed that her salary is $52,000, added that AOC’s team sincerely believed that “if you’re working a full-time job, you should be paid a living wage.”

‘It’s fundamentally crazy that Congress relies on inexperienced 20-somethings’

The majority of the representatives came from large states New York and Pennsylvania, and some of the representatives — especially those on several committees — had more than one staff assistant.

Delaware, which only has one representative — Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) — and one staff assistant, comes closest to Ocasio-Cortez’s office.

Generally, staff assistants “get paid very little because Congress allocates very little money for its own staff,” New America Senior Fellow Lee Drutman told Yahoo Finance. “Congress has been allocating very little money to itself for a long time. Every member has an allowance… and they get 18 staff [members], and it’s not very much money. So they typically pay staff assistants very little.”

Apart from compensating workers, the allowance granted by Congress is also used to operate their Washington D.C. and district offices. The overall allowance number had dipped around 2010 right after the financial crisis, but has been slowly increasing since. Staff assistant salaries have followed the trend.

“A lot of people fresh out of college find it very exciting to work in Congress… to get a foot in the door,” said Drutman. “There’re a lot of people who are willing to work at these entry-level jobs. And they’re very replaceable, honestly.”

He added that a viable solution would be for Congress “to allocate more resources so that everybody regardless of their level on the Hill can earn a decent salary. It’s fundamentally crazy that Congress relies on inexperienced 20-somethings to make sense of the complexity of laws and regulations and oversight that it’s responsible for.”

In this chart, the Members' Representational Allowance (MRA) trend line at shows much a Representative is allocated per year. (Source: Congressional Research Service)

‘She’s a real star’

AOC’s plan to raise the bar for entry-level pay also includes lowering the ceiling by capping out staff salaries at $80,000. The median salary for chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill is $154,634, according to Legistorm.

Ocasio-Cortez’s Communications Director Corbin Trent, who has two children and makes $67,000, said that it was a trade-off that he was willing to make.

“Part of walking the walk is understanding that everyone is going to have a little bit of a struggle,” he told Roll Call in an interview. “You divide it up. You work together.”

Drutman noted that ironically, AOC is creating an exception to the issue of paying higher-level staff less: “She’s a real star. A lot of people will be happy to be her chief of staff or legislative director and make little money.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. at an event to advocate for the Paycheck Fairness Act. (Photo credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Aarthi is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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