A salary study commissioned by the state Senate but never publicly released found fault with the chamber’s hiring and pay practices for its staffers, concluding the approach “can be perceived as lacking fairness” and may lead to “problematic staff turnover.”
The 144-page report, conducted by the National Conference on State Legislatures and obtained by the Globe, was solicited by the Senate in 2020 with the aim of reviewing job responsibilities and the compensation structure. Its conclusions, completed in November 2021 and circulated to Senate offices in January, echo the concerns of many staff on Beacon Hill, which have gained steam in recent years.
Fourteen current and former legislative staff told the Globe that the pay inequities are driving high staff turnover that hinders the Legislature’s ability to perform its basic functions, such as serving constituents and drafting legislation. The Senate’s way of doing business, staff members contend, has resulted in frozen wages, lost flexibility, and lawmakers having to spend political capital — or their own money — when they want to give their employees bonuses or other benefits such as transportation stipends and office supplies.
After Globe inquires about the report, the Senate on Wednesday announced that it had hired a consultant to serve as the chamber’s newly created “compensation specialist.” The consultant will receive a $100,000 annual salary, according to state payroll data.
The Senate’s pay structure was revamped in 2018 after a new state law meant to ensure more fair and equal workplaces was enacted. Instead of giving each senator a pot of money to spend on compensation and other costs, the Senate president’s office must approve each hire and raise. The goal was to create more uniformity across offices and address President Karen E. Spilka’s goal of equalizing pay by gender.
In a statement, Spilka defended her work, highlighting achievements such as increasing parental and caregiver leave for legislative staff and beginning an “ongoing” process of updating the Senate’s pay and job classification structure.
“I have spent my career in public service fighting to ensure all workers are treated fairly, with dignity and respect,” she said.
According to the National Conference on State Legislatures report, which only studied the Senate, the current hiring process is not clear and accessible to most Senate employees. Some staff interviewed stated that the current policy is “that there is none” and that raises require “the Senate president’s permission,” a process that the staff reported was both “antiquated and subject to concerns about preferential treatment.”
The conversation around pay for Senate staff grew louder after the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act went into effect in 2018, and a group of House and Senate staff focused on pay equity and financial security published a study of their own.
Maia Raynor made just $32,000 when she was hired as a legislative aide for Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz in 2017, recalled the former legislative director and leader of the group dubbed Beacon BLOC (Building Leaders of Color), which organized the state House and Senate staff pay study.
To afford rent, Raynor moved to Somerville from Roxbury, the neighborhood she grew up in. On weekdays, she attended catered events at the State House to feed herself and scrimped on groceries. The senator helped pay for Lyfts and Ubers, but like many lawmakers, there was little else Chang-Díaz could do. Raynor, 27, left her job last year to become a political organizer and consultant.
Her experience isn’t unique, Raynor said. She worked under two Senate presidents, and started to realize that senators who got a meeting with leadership had to choose between asking for more pay or asking for support for their priority bills. All 14 current and former staffers interviewed by the Globe echoed the sentiment.
“The conversation around staff pay was always . . . can we afford to have this conversation with the Senate president now?” Raynor said. “It’s wild when you see the policies you’re pushing for addressing poverty and the fiscal cliff, and realize it’s about you.”
The Beacon BLOC study found that more than 80 percent of the 200 staff members polled felt their salary doesn’t match their skills and experience, which can include law degrees or fluency in second or third languages. Only 18 percent reported that they had been given an opportunity to negotiate their pay.
Shortly after Beacon BLOC released its survey results last spring, both the House and Senate implemented a 6 percent pay increase for all staff, raising the minimum salary from $43,000 to $45,580, and provided a $500 pandemic-related stipend for work-from-home costs.
That month, during the debate over the budget, Senator Diana DiZoglio filed four amendments to address staff compensation, including an increase to minimum salaries, annual cost-of-living increases, and a way to bridge the gap in health coverage that occurs the first few months of a staff member’s employment.
DiZoglio, a former legislative aide, said she filed the amendments in response to results from the Beacon BLOC survey.
Only the health insurance amendment passed, and was later taken out of the bill during negotiations between the chambers. She filed another bill to boost the minimum staff pay, but it never got a hearing.
“Until the centralized power structure on Beacon Hill changes, I don’t really see much changing regarding the staff-related issues,” said DiZoglio, who is running for auditor. “I plan to do an audit of the Legislature. We have been asking for information surrounding this, and I have been given the runaround.”
For 2021, all state representatives and senators received the same base pay rate of $70,339 — up from $66,257 in 2020 — but lawmakers also earn stipends based on leadership and committee positions that bring the minimum compensation for a senator to roughly $110,000. Many senators make more.
The National Conference on State Legislatures study found that since the Senate doesn’t have uniformity among job titles and compensation, it’s difficult to compare jobs. The lack of structure, evaluations, and firm pay scales “potentially undermines” the Senate’s goal of having a more equitable and consistent pay system.
“When employees cannot see clear ‘goalposts’ or ways to progress through or grow within a workplace, they may leave, which can lead to problematic staff turnover,” researchers wrote.
In an e-mail to Beacon Hill staff announcing the findings in January, Spilka said the next step is to determine which recommendations are appropriate to implement.
Mark Martinez, who worked in the Senate from 2018 to 2021, was upset to hear that no action had been taken as a result of the report. Martinez, who is a lawyer, said he worked bartending shifts to supplement his income as a policy and budget adviser, which paid $53,000 to start.
“It’s maddening,” said Martinez, 28, who is running to represent the Seventh Suffolk District in the House. “What was the point of spending all this time and money on this report if they aren’t going to follow through on it?”
A current aide, Immaculate Mchome, said her takeaway from 3½ years in Senator Jamie Eldridge’s office is that the experience of working in the State House varies too much from office to office. Her office is “like family,” she said, but not every staffer benefits from the same treatment.
Mchome, 26, makes just above the minimum salary and gets by with help from Eldridge, who distributes a stipend to staff when he gets a raise.
“If it wasn’t for my colleagues and my boss, I would have left,” she said. “I know that a lot of constituents get mad when the legislators get a pay raise . . . but that doesn’t trickle down to the staff.”