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By State Representative Erika Uyterhoeven
Solidarity and congratulations are due to the State Senate staffers who last week announced their intention to organize a union with IBEW 2222 as the Massachusetts State House Employee Union (MSHEU).
It’s long in coming and way overdue – we’ve long known that staff conditions vary widely from office to office, and for too many staff, their conditions are appalling. Because of the enormous inherent power differential between legislators and staff, all State House staff need and deserve union representation to negotiate fair pay, working conditions, and the dignity and respect that all workers deserve.
Let’s be clear: our entire institution would be paralyzed if it weren’t for our staff. During my first month in office, my assistant Lucas became the father of a beautiful baby girl. He was away for three months paid family leave, and the State House wouldn’t let me hire a temporary replacement. I was told that it was up to me how long Lucas should take for family leave. Simply put, neither I nor any legislator should have so much power over their staff, not to mention that everyone should be entitled to paid family leave, period. Lucas took three months of paid family leave and during those three months I learned and performed all the duties of what staff do to keep our offices running.
I did, but it wasn’t fair to me, Lucas or my constituents. It has become so clear in these three months that staff are grossly underpaid and lack sufficient workplace protections for complex and demanding work. State House staff are often responsible for multiple spinning plates, from constituent services to communications to drafting legislation — all on a living wage. When our staff are not treated or paid the way they deserve for their work, we risk suffering burnout, high turnover and unfair hiring practices, which can have consequences for our constituents.
That’s why last year I worked with Senator Diana DiZoglio to facilitate an anonymous, voluntary survey that was created by State House staffers in various offices, alongside BLOCK taga collective of Beacon Hill staff and residents advocating for anti-racist, justice-centric systems within the State House.
Many concerns were raised in the survey, including issues around compensation, financial security, monthly work expenses before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, pay equity, and cultural and social dynamics in the workplace. building.
A union will be an indispensable tool for staff to organize their collective power in the State House and fight for fair and living wages, transparency in the hiring process, anti-racism infrastructure and protections for BIPOC, LGBTQ and gender. female staff, and many more. On top of that, I have a duty as a legislator to do everything in my power to support them.
In response to the survey results, Senator DiZoglio and I introduced a series of bills to support staff in several areas of workplace safety.
The first invoice of the package (HD4386) provides a floor for the lowest level of legislative staff salaries that would ensure a living wage for the House, Senate, and joint legislative staff. This would reduce the barrier to entry into the public service, especially for members of underserved populations, for people of color, for recent graduates for whom student debt is an insurmountable barrier.
The legislation provides for appropriate adjustments to other salary levels to make public service a viable career choice, to increase diversity and representation among those serving on the front lines between Beacon Hill and Commonwealth residents.
In addition, we have introduced bills to ensure that legislative staff members receive the same cost-of-living adjustments that legislators already have, and retroactive bonuses to account for the costs of working from home during the pandemic. (HD 4388, HD 4387).
The package would also eliminate the waiting period for health insurance coverage for staff (HD4389), which currently denies state coverage for the first 60 days of employment. And it would also establish a post in each chamber for an officer to anonymously represent legislative employees before those authorized to make employment-related decisions (HD4390). Since staff are technically hired by leaders, this would give them a voice as members of the workforce and as residents of the Commonwealth before those in positions of power.
While the bill would significantly reduce many of the issues highlighted in the survey, the need for a staff union is greater than ever. Passing bills is sadly an insider’s game in Beacon Hill, and organizing for worker power is still a powerful way to counter the power imbalance in the workplace.
I am so proud to have supported the efforts of staff members at Beacon BLOC and State House since taking office. You can join me in showing your support for the Staff Union by signature of the commitment and follow their work and next steps on Twitter @BeaconHillUnion.