More than a dozen former staffers of Representative Pramila Jayapal, a House Democrat who made a name for herself as a labor advocate, claim her treatment of them was contradictory to her public image. Last year the Washington state Democrat proposed the Paycheck Recovery Act to prevent layoffs during the Covid-19 crisis by requiring the federal government to pay people’s paychecks. In public, Jayapal said that passing the law was a question of employees’ survival. However, former staffers said that the legislator behaved quite differently in private.
According to Buzzfeed News, Jayapal fired two employees without severance pay in November 2020. Jayapal’s spokesperson, Chris Evans, said the decision was taken to “best utilize” the office’s resources and that workers were given six weeks’ notice. According to individuals close to the situation, one employee who was notified they were being let go was asked to reapply for a new job in the office that would combine two separate duties. After going through the entire application process, the staffer found out in an all-hands meeting that they did not get the job.
Although Jayapal is one of DC’s most visible progressives and the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, 14 former employees describe a chaotic and turbulent work environment during her almost five years in Congress. They claim a significant disparity exists between how she talks about workers’ rights and how she treats her employees.
The staffers, choosing to remain anonymous, described Jayapal as a supervisor who often berated workers in front of others, demanded long hours, maintained an atmosphere of ever-evolving demands, and had minimal tolerance for error. This led some of the employees to seek counseling and question their desire to work in public service. Jayapal has had one of the highest staff turnover rates in the House since assuming office.
Jayapal was elected to the House as a representative of a Seattle-area district on the same night that Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. She swiftly climbed to prominence, fighting for leftist goals like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. She soon found herself directing progressive propaganda against his government, but her staff’s treatment is now an open secret on Capitol Hill.
One former staffer stated, “I’ve worked in bad environments before, and I have worked in some awful environments before for some awful people. I’ve been colleagues with some awful people. I have never worked in a place that has made me so miserable and so not excited for public service as Pramila Jayapal’s office.” Another former worker said, “it’s almost like Stockholm syndrome.”
Jayapal’s chief of staff, Lilah Pomerance, deflected to race and sex in response to a request for comment stating, “women of color are often unjustly targeted, regularly held to higher standards than their male colleagues, and always put under a sexist microscope.” She went on to say that the stories were “cherry-picked,” lacked context, and contained “ugly stereotypes.”
Many of the former staffers said they felt compelled to speak out because they believed it was necessary to expose how the progressive leader handles her staff and the Capitol Hill atmosphere that allows for such conduct. Despite the concern that a negative report of Jayapal would reflect poorly on the progressive causes they champion, most of them ultimately opted to tell their stories.
All of the staffers who spoke to Buzzfeed said the pay was low, the expectations were high, and the job often interfered with their personal lives. One staffer stated that “if you were to divide it into an hourly wage, it would probably be like $12 to $15 an hour. Which is not ideal when considering, like, we are advocating for a $15 minimum wage.” Another said that the office environment “was so toxic and abusive that I felt like the only way I could continue to function both in my professional and personal life was to seek therapy and counseling. I felt that leaving was the only choice.” Many of Jayapal’s former employees have stayed close after leaving her office, bonding over the “trauma,” as one put it. Several people said it took them a long time to adjust after starting a new job.
Unfortunately, Rep. Jayapal is not the only politician whose actions do not align with policies they champion or the persona they cultivate.