Capitol staffers tell job gripes and slam bad bosses — anonymously
Inspired by their union-yearning congressional counterparts, state Capitol employees have taken to social media with anonymous posts about bad bosses and a percolating desire for the same bargaining rights enjoyed by other state workers.
The Instagram account, “DearCaStaffers,” had about 2,700 followers by Thursday. That was 400 more than the day before.
Modeled on “dear_white_staffers,” an 80,000-follower account operated by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) congressional staff who are calling out inequities and rallying for union representation, the Sacramento account promises an anonymous platform to unload about workplaces where abuse is the norm.
The posts range from indignant gripes about mileage reimbursement to the tawdry tale of a drunken male lawmaker who called a female staffer at 2 a.m., seeking a place for the night.
“CA staffers,” the profile urged, “tell us what it’s really like working in the Legislature.”
California staffers promptly obliged with a litany of real and perceived abuses. They laid out streams of miserable moments with difficult members. They described drunken misconduct, verbal abuse, psychological exhaustion and a range of sexually inappropriate interactions.
Several posts called fresh attention to the kind of predatory power imbalance that fueled the #MeToo movement. Writers pointedly suggested that, despite claims of reform, little or nothing has changed since the toxic culture was exposed years ago.
Making use of the new platform, staff members call out their tormentors by name. They described stressful work with low pay and unrealistic expectations. And they did so in a surprisingly public way.
Sort of. It is public in the sense that anyone with an Instagram account can read it. But it’s not exactly transparent, since its confessionary model depends on the promise of secrecy. Without that secrecy, staff would likely remain silent in order to protect their careers.
Other modest efforts went live in Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Wisconsin. Accounts and followers seemed to be adding up.
Shielded by anonymity, staff openly question legislative leadership in a way they probably wouldn’t if their names were known. Except for those that are screen-captured, the posts expire after a day – sooner if traffic is heavy, according to some who have posted on the feed.
Account operators, who remain anonymous themselves, have actively urged followers to spill dirt about certain members whose reputations have long been subject of whispered disapproval. Confirm what we already know, they seemed to say.
The central lament of at-will staff — the caprice and impunity of unaccountable office holders—is by no means unique to Sacramento. The notion that elected officials can clean up their act and treat employees with respect is, at least on social media, spreading from Congress to state houses around the country.
A rash of copycat dear-staffer accounts popped up recently. “dear_campaign_staffers,” drew just over 1,000 followers midweek with its promise “to bring transparency and accountability to campaign culture.”
Making use of the new platform, staff members call out their tormentors by name.
Staffers in Tennessee’s Capitol, meanwhile, expressed similar goals with a fresh account that had several hundred followers by midweek. Other modest efforts went live in Indiana, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Wisconsin. Accounts and followers seemed to be adding up.
Tales of California disgruntlement run the gamut from banal to lurid. Some deal with grief years old, and members or staff long gone from the Legislature.
“It’s like a high school mean-girl slam book,” said one veteran lawmaker. “It’s unfortunate. It devalues legitimate complaints. It’s full of political hits and rumors, but nobody is trying to solve real problems. They’re just pulling people down.”
The solution, at least as outlined in “@dear_white_staffers,” and echoed on the growing number of imitator accounts, is union representation. Proponents say bargaining agreements could set real guardrails on supervisor behavior, and put an end to perennial aggravations unique to legislative work, like the forced “volunteering” for campaign drudgery every two years.
Despite legislative leadership’s vaunted reforms in response to #MeToo, legislative staff apparently still feel vulnerable to employer whims.
Membership in a bargaining unit, the thinking goes, would prevent the most egregious cases of bad employer behavior.
Toward that end, stories poured forth, like that of the member who routinely stiffed staff for drink tabs. Or the public beratings. Or the private beratings. Or the labyrinth of pressures heaped on underpaid, inexperienced staff.
The posts range from indignant gripes about mileage reimbursement to the tawdry tale of a drunken male lawmaker who called a female staffer at 2 a.m., seeking a place for the night. There are plenty of instances, too, of lawmakers who made staffers feel uncomfortable during rides to the airport, at after-hours events or in the privacy of a Capitol office.
Despite legislative leadership’s vaunted reforms in response to #MeToo, legislative staff apparently still feel vulnerable to employer whims, and many say they wouldn’t risk lodging formal complaints, convinced they would be unsupported by the institution.
“This is why we turned to Instagram,” said one Senate staffer, who posted about persistent bullying and a senator who chose to look the other way. “This is why we lose talented people from this field.”
The idea of giving collective bargaining rights to legislative staff has gradually gained steam in recent years, though bills that aim to do so continue to stall.
Last year, the effort reached a high-water mark when then-Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez convinced 38 Assembly colleagues to co-author her staff organizing bill. Even with the committed support of nearly half the lower house, however, the bill was held in committee. And now that she has left the Assembly to lead the California Labor Federation, organizers hope another lawmaker will take up the cause.
In the meantime, whistle-blowing staffers have what appears to be a safe way to shine a light on bad behavior.
Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.
Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.