Opinion: State legislative staffers should make a living wage
Higher pay would make public service more accessible to all communities in New York.
With the ongoing “Great Resignation,” inflation on the rise and the first unionizations at two Starbucks locations in Buffalo, we are witnessing a long overdue nationwide debate over job quality and wages. This debate should not be limited to the private sector. To build the public sector we need, it should extend to our public servants here in New York state, including legislative staffers in Albany.
The New York City Council staffers’ successful unionization was driven in part because of a lack of a pay floor, allowing for near-minimum wages, and the same low pay exists for state legislators’ aides. With a new legislative session just underway in Albany, Gov. Kathy Hochul, state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie should take the lead on creating a more equitable, diverse and better functioning state government by increasing the pay of the state Legislature’s staffers.
This proposal isn’t just about paying bureaucrats a livable wage. It’s also about opening pathways into public service for people from all the communities that state government serves – and improving effectiveness and ethics in government.
How much aides are paid is currently at the discretion of each legislator. While some elected officials have gone out of their way to pay more junior staffers reasonable salaries, limited office budgets mean any increase for some staff members has to be balanced by paying senior staffers less. This constraint makes retention more challenging, or requires hiring fewer staff members overall, which would decrease legislators’ capacity to build up their office’s expertise and be effective representatives for their communities.
On the publicly accessible database of state employees’ wages, there are several hundred full-time staffers who are earning between $25,000 to $35,000 before taxes. These low wages undoubtedly lock out many potential public servants from entering into politics.
We write as leaders of a progressive New York City-based think tank that works to bring more people with lived experience of the issues they work on into policy leadership positions. Having people from the communities most impacted by policy – including those whose families can’t subsidize their salaries with financial assistance – in agenda-setting governmental positions will create better policy that is more responsive to all New Yorkers’ needs.
The state has already taken some actions to expand pathways into public service for people of color and those from low-income backgrounds. Consistent with recommendations from leading advocacy organizations like Pay Our Interns, the state Senate and Assembly internship programs, a frequent pathway into government service, are paid. And the Empire State Fellows Program provides a path into leadership positions in the executive branch, although it is limited to people exiting graduate school with several years of work experience.
The state has already found ways to make becoming a lawmaker more accessible. Pay has recently increased to the point where legislators could feasibly afford rent in both their hometown and in Albany, unlike in other states. And just as public campaign financing in New York City has led to increased diversity among its elected officials, a similar system will expand statewide starting in the 2024 election cycle.
As go the leaders, so should go the staff. The governor, state Senate majority leader and Assembly speaker should pass legislation that sets a salary floor for legislature staffers that would allow someone to live, pay off student loans, make car payments and begin a feasible long-term career in public service. And the legislation should expand elected officials’ personnel budgets, ensuring that fair pay for all staff doesn’t limit or reduce the members’ capacity to pay senior employees more, or maintain current staffing levels.
Even a significant personnel budget increase would be a rounding error when looking at a state budget that exceeds $210 billion. For example, increasing the personnel budgets for each of the 150 Assembly members and 63 state senators by $75,000 and $150,000, respectively, would cost nearly $21 million. This small investment could be found in the general fund during this year’s budget negotiations and would reap dividends in a government that is more reflective of, and better serves, all New Yorkers.
It’s easy to be cynical about members of the government paying themselves more. But the reality is these actions will serve all of us by bringing in a more diverse set of staffers, improving governmental expertise and preventing rapid turnover. There are numerous reports on how low pay for congressional staffers has led them to flee to lobbying shops, and therefore undermining effective governance.
These steps alone will not create the reflective, responsive government we need. They must be coupled with intentional recruitment and hiring of staff across government who reflect the diversity of New York state. Leaders must in particular expand existing pathways into these jobs through SUNY and CUNY, which both have public policy programs that create a strong educational foundation.
Higher pay does not preclude improving job quality in other ways. New York City Council staffers complained about mistreatment by their supervisors, long hours and unpaid overtime. And after exposés on former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, we know this toxic atmosphere, especially for women, has been pervasive throughout Albany too. Increased salaries must be accompanied by clear policies that will require public reporting of salaries and salary parity, and by other steps toward improved working conditions, including easy and safe methods to report harassment or misconduct by colleagues and supervisors.
Because legislative aides can advance quickly among their teams, and tend to have substantial influence given the small size of elected officials’ staffs, making the talent pipeline more inclusive has the potential to produce a new generation of policy leaders that is more reflective of our communities across the state. This is an opportunity for state leaders to lead, advancing equity and bolster the effectiveness of state government.
Emma Vadehra is the executive director and Daniel Edelman is the associate director of the progressive think tank Next100.