Former staffers: Rep. Jayapal's progressivism doesn't translate to her own office

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Rep. Jayapal has fashioned her professional image as a squad-adjacent progressive who is never afraid to bash her opponents for failing to live up to her high standards. But Buzzfeed reports today that Jayapal’s beliefs about worker’s rights don’t often translate into how things operate inside her own congressional office.

Despite the fact that Jayapal is one of the highest-profile progressives in DC and the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, 14 former staffers from throughout her nearly five years in Congress describe a dysfunctional and volatile workplace. There is, they said, a serious disconnect between how she talks about workers’ rights and how she treats her own staff…

“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,” one former Jayapal staffer said. “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.”…

Jayapal has also been known allegedly to berate staffers, at times publicly. In one early 2019 instance, she yelled at a staffer in the anteroom of a House Budget Committee hearing over how an interaction with a witness had gone, according to sources who learned about it immediately or shortly after it happened. Despite the encounter taking place in a back room, there were several witnesses, including employees from other offices. The witnesses said the employee, who was then new to staffing Jayapal at hearings, was in tears after it happened. The staffer who was yelled at declined to provide comment for this story; Jayapal’s office confirmed the incident and said she apologized afterward. “The anecdote is in no way representative of what it is like to work for someone who has spent decades being a champion for the rights of all workers,” Evans said in an email.

At times, Jayapal also grew upset with staffers over scheduling conflicts. Three sources recalled one instance in the office when Jayapal blamed a staffer for the lawmaker’s personal weight gain because she did not have enough gym time on her schedule. The staffer involved declined to provide a comment for this story.

According to Buzzfeed’s sources, the tough conditions are an open secret on Capitol Hill. And the numbers back that up. Jayapal’s office has had one of the highest turnover rates in Congress. Buzzfeed’s review of staffing found that 15 of 40 former staffers have stayed with her office less than a year. Jayapal currently has 16 staffers in her office. Of those, nine started less than a year ago.

Jayapal’s current staffers offered some spin on almost everything in the report. For instance, they claim the turnover numbers are high because staffers are leaving for wonderful opportunities elsewhere, i.e. moving up in the world. But Buzzfeed spoke to one staffer who actually took a pay cut to get out of her office.

Jayapal’s staff also leaned heavily on the idea that criticism of her is sexist and probably racist as well. Her Chief of Staff told Buzzfeed, “Women of color are often unjustly targeted, regularly held to higher standards than their male colleagues, and always put under a sexist microscope.”

Even if that’s true, it doesn’t mean she’s being held to a higher standard in this case. In fact, the people who spoke critically about conditions in her office did so despite being on her side politically. Six of the former staffers Buzzfeed spoke with said they had sought out therapy after working there.

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,” one said. Ultimately, this person said, “I felt that leaving was the only choice.”

The piece ends with a former staffer telling Buzzfeed, “I think a lot of us are going to be in therapy for a very long time.” Not a great recommendation for a progressive champion of the worker.