Report: Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s Harsh Treatment of Staff Belies Pro-Worker Reputation 

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., speaks during a House Judiciary Committee markup of the art
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) has spent her five years in Congress burnishing her pro-worker credentials. In May, Jayapal introduced the Paycheck Recovery Act to cover the paychecks of workers laid off because of the coronavirus pandemic, but laid off her own staff in November 2020.

Buzz Feed News conducted a three-month investigation on Jayapal, who is chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and reported on the staff layoffs. Chris Evans, a spokesperson for the congresswoman, told Buzz Feed News the decision was made to “best utilize” the office’s resources.

Buzz Feed News reported:

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. The conversations with former staff members, all granted anonymity to speak candidly due to the insular nature of Capitol Hill and fears of retaliation, reveal an especially harsh office with a boss whose treatment of workers runs contrary to the public expectations she has set for others.

In interviews with BuzzFeed News, they described Jayapal as a boss who berated staff in front of others, demanded grueling hours, and maintained an office culture marked by constantly changing expectations and little tolerance for error, to the extent that some staffers sought therapy and questioned their careers in public service. Since taking office, Jayapal has had one of the highest staff turnover rates in the House, due in large part, former employees said, to the unrealistic standards she sets. “It’s not sustainable to be able to stay for too long,” one said.

In response to requests for comment for this story, Jayapal’s chief of staff, Lilah Pomerance, said in a statement, “Women of color are often unjustly targeted, regularly held to higher standards than their male colleagues, and always put under a sexist microscope.”

“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.”

“If you were in Jayapal’s office, people were like, ‘You don’t need to say no more’ — like, ‘We understand’ — so there was that reputation,” one source said. “For the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus to have that reputation, I just think that’s really sad.”

“It’s almost like Stockholm syndrome,” one former staffer said.

“You’re young and impressionable and, without a lot of experience in a workplace, you don’t know what is right, what is wrong, how to stand up for yourself, [or] what to say when you stand up for yourself,” one former staffer said. “There’s this power dynamic that you’re just this early twentysomething, and it’s like, how do I speak out against a member of Congress?”

Buzz Feed News reported that Jayapal has consistently had one of the highest staff turnover rates in Congress, ranking 33rd out of 539 members from 2017 to 2020, or in the 94th percentile, according to the congressional tracking service LegiStorm.

“Jayapal is now in the 96th percentile for turnover, according to the LegiStorm analysis,” Buzz Feed News reported.

The Buzz Feed report did include those who support Jayapal.

“Pramila has the absurd task of tackling some of the country’s most urgent problems with the limited resources our system provides. Like all members of Congress, she must decide how much of that burden to place on her staff, and like all members of Congress, she doesn’t always get it right,” another former staffer said but added they could not speak for others. “I believe she is doing the best she can, and hope that any talk around working conditions can help inspire progressive members (and their senior staff) to raise the standard above the status quo.”

“Pramila Jayapal is a progressive leader and a tireless advocate for women and families,” pro-abortion EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock said in a statement during Jayapal’s 2016 campaign.

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock waves from the podium during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

And her spokesman also defended her in email interaction with Buzz Feed News, including when responding to a staffer’s claim that Jayapal blamed her weight gain on poor scheduling that kept her from going to the gym.

“The Congresswoman is one of less than 100 women of color to have EVER served in Congress and I can’t even begin to imagine this disgustingly sexist rumor about weight and body image being said about the thousands of men who have walked those halls,” Evans said. “The Congresswoman is able to serve her 711,000 constituents, lead the progressive caucus, and go to the gym.”

“Several staffers also told BuzzFeed News that their mental health had deteriorated because of the office environment and that they’d witnessed their colleagues having similar experiences,” Buzz News Feed reported. “Six of them shared with BuzzFeed News that they’d sought therapy while working for Jayapal, in large part because of the lopsided work-life balance in the office, the constantly changing expectations for staffers, and stress about the lawmaker’s nonstop pace.”

“I think a lot of us are going to be in therapy for a very long time,” a staffer said.

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