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Hill Life & People

Some MPs treat staff ‘like cattle,’ others great bosses, say Liberal and Conservative Hill staffers

By Abbas Rana, Laura Ryckewaert      

'The key thing is it all comes down to ego. All these people have some of the biggest egos in the country,' said one Conservative staffer.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer are ultimately in charge of most of the MPs on the Hill. Some Liberal and Conservative MP Hill staffers say their salaries are low, they have no job security, work 60-70 hours each week, and their MPs don't treat them with respect. They want their party leadership to ensure that they get a work environment with better salaries and more predictable work hours. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade
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Some Liberal and Conservative MPs are on a “power trip” and treat their staff “like cattle,” say some staffers, who add that they want fair compensation for their work and standardized employment practices in MPs’ offices.

“While some MPs are excellent employers, others, who’ve had not one iota of management experience, treat their staff like cattle, frankly,” said one Liberal Hill staffer who spoke to The Hill Times on a not for attribution basis.

“[They] are essentially on this grand power trip, and are really operating on this subconscious notion of ‘oh, well, I’ve employed these guys, they need me more than I need them and they know what they got themselves into.”

After The Hill Times broke the story in last Monday’s issue of Liberal staffer Paul Wernick’s two suicide attempts this year, including one on the Hill, some Hill staffers contacted the paper to highlight the “abusive treatment” they receive at the hands of some Liberal and Conservative MPs, along with low salaries and 60-70 hour work weeks, most weeks.

Mr. Wernick, who quit his job last week, worked for rookie Liberal MP Francis Drouin (Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, Ont.) in his Hill office, first as legislative assistant and later as an executive assistant, for about 20 months. He told The Hill Times two weeks ago that he had a pre-existing condition of deep depression which was exacerbated by 60-70 hour work weeks. Mr. Wernick did not blame Mr. Drouin for his two suicide attempts or any mistreatment, describing him as a “very kind boss,” and said that he was sharing his story to raise more awareness about staffers grappling with mental health challenges, working long hours, and not having enough time to maintain work-life balance.

For Hill and constituency office staff, MPs are responsible for hiring, firing, promoting, and setting the salaries of staffers. It’s up to each MP to decide how many staffers he or she wants in their Hill and constituency offices and each staffer’s job description.

All MPs have a base office budget of about $358,000 and also get supplementary budgets if their ridings are geographically large or have a larger population. Most MPs have one Hill office and at least one constituency office. The budget is used to cover salaries, and other expenses including rent, phones, faxes, computers, and other utilities.

Paul Wernick, pictured with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left his job last week to go back to school. Photograph courtesy of Facebook

The staffers who contacted The Hill Times last week requested anonymity to share their complaints, for fear of retribution. The Hill Times also reached out to current and former Hill staffers independently to confirm if the complaints have any merit, which they confirmed.

Some Hill staffers who called The Hill Times shared examples in which their bosses admonished them for taking “20-30 minutes” to respond to their texts, even after work hours. They said MPs expect their staffers to be available when needed, even after regular business hours or on weekends, which makes it “impossible” to have free time to unwind.

The staffers said that they don’t feel comfortable raising issues of mistreatment to their party caucus whips because each whip is also a caucus member and will likely take the side of his or her caucus colleague. Also, any staffer who complains about his or her MP is labelled as a “troublemaker” and doesn’t last very long on the Hill, Liberal and Conservative staffers opined.

“It’s basically like being in a toxic, abusive relationship and not being able to get out of it,” a second Liberal Hill staffer said.

“There’s this underlying fear that you [a staffer] can’t say anything, even to your boss, because you’re replaceable. You’re being paid $35,000, $45,000 and they make you understand that you can be let go at any point in time, ‘We can find someone else who is just as eager,’ that’s part of the issue.”

Some staffers said that in most cases, it’s very difficult to work on the Hill and expect to have a regular family life. Even for singles, the staffers said, it’s very challenging to have a life outside of the Hill.

“There’s no understanding that the person who is working for you has a life because you’re not expected to have a life,” said the second staffer. “It’s part of this culture that has allowed, to a certain extent, the dehumanization of the staffer, because they [MPs] feel entitled to treat us this way. A lot of them are not even aware they’re treating staffers this way because they’re not aware of the challenges that are faced by other staffers.”

Mr. Wernick, in another interview last week, agreed that it’s a serious challenge for staffers with families and children to have a regular family life. He also agreed that salaries are low with no job security. He said that staffers and MPs in House leadership positions should have a conversation about how to address the concerns of staffers who have low salaries, find it difficult to have a regular family life, and feel like they can lose their job any time.

“If we don’t even have a conversation, how is anything going to change?” he said.

A Conservative staffer, who spoke on not for attribution basis with The Hill Times, said Mr. Wernick’s description of the challenges and pressures of work on Parliament Hill rings “true.”

“It’s a very pressure-packed place. You can be fired at any time…most people can’t stay here longer than like two years, because you will burn yourself out,” said the staffer. “You have to be able to manage your life and your job in a way that, if you want to stay here, can make you avoid burnout, and I’ll say it’s very difficult to do that when you’re starting out on the Hill.”

Junior staffers, new to the Hill and eager to prove their worth, are less likely to have the confidence and experience to say no if they are asked to take on extra duties when they are already at their limit.

“If you’ve only been here a little while, like, you’re disposable almost,” said the staffer. “I was lucky because I worked for someone who was great starting off.”

There’s a “huge expectation” that staff have to be on call 24/7 for their MPs, in particular to field media requests and keep abreast of the news of the day on social media and beyond, and “that causes massive stress for people,” said the staffer.

The number of hours staffers put in on the Hill varies by MP and by time of year. During the final stretch of sitting before the House rises for the summer, “there’s a lot of people working 70 hours a week,” said the staffer, but not so during July, when Parliament is on break.

“Everyone puts in long hours at some point. There’s some MPs that’ll recognize that and give lots of time off in exchange, whether it’s extra vacation in the summer or the winter break…But there are other MPs that don’t make up for it, and those are the ones you want to avoid,” said the staffer.

Currently, the maximum annual salary for MP staff, capped by the House of Commons, is $87,200 per year, but the staffer said in their experience, “very few staff make that or close to it.” Instead, the staffer estimated that most senior staff in MP offices make around $55,000 to $60,000 a year, plus benefits, and most junior staff make around $40,000 to $45,000.

But underpaid staff is “not necessarily the MP’s fault,” noted the staffer, as MPs are limited by their annual Members’ Office Budgets. In most cases MPs have two staffers in the Hill office, and two in constituency offices to deal with all the case files and other work that comes in at the riding level. It’s estimated that there are about 1,850 staffers who work on the Hill and constituency offices across the country.

The Conservative staffer said it’s not not uncommon to witness MPs from any party exhibiting bullying behaviour towards their staff on the Hill, noting, for example, having witnessed an unnamed Liberal MP “berate” a staffer “in front of everybody” before the start of a committee meeting.

While they may not be called out in public, the staffer said such experiences don’t go unnoticed among other staff.

“Staffers do talk to each other,” said the Conservative staffer. “If every year the same MP is looking for one or two new staff members, that’s a sign there’s an issue.”

All 338 MPs in the House of Commons are individual employers, operating their offices and managing their staffers as they like. The Conservative staffer said that some MPs start out bad but eventually get better at managing their staff, but others “turn into less grateful employers, let’s say.”

“The key thing is it all comes down to ego. All these people have some of the biggest egos in the country,” said the Conservative staffer.

Former Conservative ministerial staffer Garry Keller, pictured with Conservative MP Maxime Bernier. The Hill Times file photograph.

Garry Keller, a former long-time Conservative Hill staffer who’s now a vice president at StrategyCorp, said he had never been bullied during his time on the Hill, but had seen some MPs mistreat their staff in a way that was “very, very petty.”

“Every party’s got stories of certain people that are good to work for, and not so good to work for,” said Mr. Keller, who served as chief of staff to then-interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, as chief of staff to the Conservative government whip, as chief of staff to the government House leader, and in other roles.

Mr. Keller said that he and then-government whip Gordon O’Connor spoke with MPs who were “not very good to work for”  to try to “correct that behaviour.”

“But the challenge, and it’s part of the way the Hill is set up, is MPs are individual employers of their staff. You can do a lot of things to try to enhance things, but at the end of the day, the MP controls their staffing, that’s the way the system is set up for better or for worse.”

Whip’s offices play a key role in managing MP offices, from assigning physical office space to being an avenue for staff to raise complaints.

“Sometimes it [MPs mistreating staff] happens in public…it’s not in front of the cameras, but it’s in the lobby, or in a hallway,” said Mr. Keller.

“It’s a stressful place. MPs and Senators are under a lot of stress too. That doesn’t excuse bad behaviour, but the place can be a pressure cooker, and that goes for staff as well. So sometimes unfairly or unfortunately, that pressure goes down as well from the MP down on the staff level.”

Mr. Keller said he himself came close to burn-out while he was working in a minister’s office, and had to speak up to his immediate supervisor, who he said hadn’t been aware Mr. Keller was trying to juggle too much. But he said it’s more difficult for junior staff to speak up like that, particularly in a “small work environment” like an MPs office.

“There’s competition for jobs on the Hill, and sometimes people who are willing to work 24/7 to get ahead, and sometimes that can be difficult for their colleagues to deal with because that lifestyle can be just an absolute drain,” said Mr. Keller.

But there are unique challenges to improving working life on the Hill, including irregular sitting hours and parliamentary privilege, which impact the hiring of staff and the employee-employer relationship, said Mr. Keller. He suggested one solution could be to follow the lead of some provincial legislatures where staff working for elected officials are instead employed by the legislative assembly, which is responsible for firing, hiring, benefits, and discipline. However, “I don’t think it’s a panacea because I’ve heard of similar situations happening in other jurisdictions where they had this other type of hiring practice,” he said.

Educating staff about the programs available to them through the House of Commons—like the employee assistance program—could be a good “first step,” said Mr. Keller.

Keith Beardsley, former deputy chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper, who worked on the Hill in 80s, 90s and 2000s, said that the work stress over the decades has increased and it’s especially more fast paced in the world of social media.

“Working stress and conditions, especially with smart phones now, have evolved, and not for the better,” said Mr. Beardsley in a message to The Hill Times.

Former Liberal ministerial staffer Greg MacEachern, pictured with Liberal MP Kyle Peterson. The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Munster.

Greg MacEachern, a former Liberal staffer and senior vice-president at Proof Strategies, said Mr. Wernick’s story can offer an opportunity to look at “whether or not training for MPs [is] complete enough to make sure they and their staffers know what services they can access.”

He noted that about 200 MPs arrived in 2015 as rookie Parliamentarians, some of whom might be less experienced with managing staff.

Mr. MacEachern said there’s been “talk of whisper networks around the Hill before” around “who is good to work for and who is not.”

“In my experience in politics, anyone who has high and frequent turnover of staff, that has usually been a very telling sign,” he said.

Mr. MacEachern also said “sometimes MPs are not there and don’t know if their staffers are still working, and what the workload is.”

“That’s not an excuse. They should know. That’s part of being a good employer.”

Chief Government Whip Pablo Rodriguez (Honré-Mercier, Que.), who was travelling last week and responded to The Hill Times via email while in transit, said he believes that all Hill staffers deserve a safe, healthy, and harassment free work environment. He said that staffers can approach his office if they have any complaints, and also said that the House administration offers a number of services to ensure a safe and harassment-free work environment. Mr. Rodriguez said that because of privacy concerns, he couldn’t get into details of the concerns that Hill staffers shared with The Hill Times, which were also shared with him for his reaction.

Conservative Whip Mark Strahl (Chilliwack-Hope, B.C.) did not respond to requests for a comment from The Hill Times for this story.

Meanwhile, some Liberal and Conservative staffers said that as a starting point, their parties could look at the NDP model in which staffers are unionized, and the collective agreement sets out minimum and maximum salary ranges, and hours of work in the Hill and constituency offices. Staffers don’t have to work after prescribed hours unless both parties come up with some mutual agreement, but employees will not be compensated for over time. If an NDP MP wants to terminate a staffer, there should be a “just cause” and the MP has to follow a prescribed, rigorous process to do that.

arana@hilltimes.com

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