Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reduces income inequality among her staff

She has has set a living wage minimum of $52,000 per year for her staff and a $15 per hour minimum for her interns.

Claudia Pagon Marchena, like so many Hill staffers, moonlighted at a Washington, D.C., eatery to pay her rent until she took a job with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She celebrated her last day at her coffee shop job that same week.

That’s because Ocasio-Cortez, who has called on fellow lawmakers to pay their staffs a “living wage,” is making an example out of her own office. The New York Democrat has introduced an unusual policy that no one on her staff will make less than $52,000 a year — an almost unheard of amount for many of the 20-somethings whose long hours make House and Senate offices run.

Ocasio-Cortez is trying to force the conversation. She made national headlines in December by announcing that all interns in her office would make $15 an hour plus benefits — a rarity for Capitol Hill offices in which interns are often unpaid. She has also highlighted the high number of Hill staff members who work side jobs to make up for median salaries as low as $35,000 for staff assistants, the lowest paid positions in congressional offices, according to a Legistorm analysis last year.

“We think that if a person is working, they should make enough to live,” said Corbin Trent, Ocasio-Cortez’s communications director.

A position as a congressional staffer is highly coveted because you can make a lot of important contacts. It is often the first step in a political career. When congressional salaries for staff and interns are low, this prevents young people who do not have parents who can afford to supplement their incomes from getting these jobs because the cost of living in Washington is very high. It is the same kind of subtle inequality that allows the children of wealthy people to accept offers of unpaid internships at major companies and thus get their foot inside the door before others who may be more deserving. The drive to end unpaid or low-paid internships and pay a living wage is an important step.

Since all congresspeople get a fixed staff salary budget, this decision by Ocasio-Cortez means that her top staffers will get less to allow for the lower paid people to get more. Of course, this caused Fox News people to freak out that this was the end of the world as we know it, since the very idea of reducing income disparities is anathema to them. Listen to Pete Hegseth.

Anyone who lives in the world of ordinary incomes knows at once without any calculation that $15 minimum hourly wage does not translate to $52,000 per year. It is $31,200, so this shows how innumerate and oblivious Hegseth is. But he is the guy who boasts that germs don’t exist because he can’t see them and thus has not washed his hands for the last ten years. Pro tip: Do not shake hands with him or accept any invitation to eat in his home.


  1. Marshall says

    How do you get $52 grand from $15/hr? This requires working 9.5 hours per day, 365 days of the year.

  2. OverlappingMagisteria says

    I notice that $25/hr will get you to exactly $52,000. Did someone’s finger slip on the calculator?

  3. Mano Singham says

    The $15 per hour is for interns. The $52,000 per year is for the staff. They are two different categories.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    How many people work in AOC’s office? She may bring up a couple of interns’ pay by shaving the salary of her top managers, but, after a certain point probably reached rather quickly, and budgeting from a fixed payroll allocation, higher wages has to mean lower numbers of personnel.

    And, as the highest-profile first-year House member since Henry Clay, Ocasio-Cortez probably has more work for her staff to do than anyone else below committee-chair rank (at minimum).

  5. says

    @Pierce R. Butler, I assume that AOC has done the math for her decision. I would personally point out that people on her staff do not need to do a second job anymore, so their productivity on the job should be higher and smaller staff might do just as much work as a big staff consisting of underpaid and overworked people. And they might be more willing and able to work overtime (those who get salary, not those who get wages).

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Charly @ # 5 -- Interesting speculations, but I’d like to see the work in AOC’s math on staff productivity.

  7. Sam N says

    @4, Productivity is going to depend highly on how inspiring a leader is at the front. I don’t think Alexandria is going to have problems there. There is also likely ancillary support available from campaign fundraising (which once you’re in office, never actually stops, right?) In these ways (along with having a more available talent pool that comes with a high profile) she might be very well-positioned compared to other new house members to take on the challenges of applying income equality that others do not. I’m skeptical her salary allocation will cause the running of her office any problems whatsoever compared to alternative distributions.

    I would also be happy to see the math. But the amount she is shaving 2 senior staffers pay as much as she is, grants ability to raise pay for 5 or 6 of the lowest staffers. I do wonder how benefits factor into all of this (is that independent and identical for positions? I think I was getting about a $20,000 subsidy in benefits I did not see at my last job. Now I have no subsidy, and can not afford health insurance).

  8. KG says

    When congressional salaries for staff and interns are low, this prevents young people who do not have parents who can afford to supplement their incomes from getting these jobs because the cost of living in Washington is very high.

    The exploitation of unpaid interns in fields such as politics, journalism and other areas is an ongoing scandal in the UK. For many businesses, it’s simply a matter of getting work done for nothing, but from the point of view of the elite*, the bar to young people who don’t have elite parents from getting a start in areas where power is concentrated is the main point.

    *The real one, i.e. the rich and well-connected, of whatever political leaning but predominantly conservative, not the imaginary “liberal elite”.

  9. fentex says

    This seems tangentially related to a topical news story in New Zealand; End of last week a paper had a story written by the manager of a Muffin store franchise complaining about ‘Millennial’s’ entitlement -- how depressed she was that no one was coming to her offering to work for free to gain experience when it used to happen all the time.

    Suffice to say plenty of people recognised who was really feeling entitled in that story.

  10. jrkrideau says

    @ Pierce R. Butler
    I’d like to see the work in AOC’s math on staff productivity.

    I’d like to see that too but if we assume that 50% of junior staff in Congressional offices are working two jobs at the moment, then roughly a hundred and forty years of practical experience and research suggests that productivity will improve.

    Anything much over a 40 hour week,on a sustained basis tends to be useless in terms of productivity and may be counterproductive.

    There is a good chance that AOC will have junior staff workers not zombies around. She also is likely to have more enthousiastic and loyal workers, would be my guess.

    Walmart must be in crisis mode.

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