Brooklyn Boro

‘Overworked and underpaid’ council staffers want a living wage

November 14, 2019 David Brand

New York City Council members voted in 2016 to raise their own wages by $36,000 — a bump that is more than dozens of council staffers make in a year.

At least 81 full- and part-time district staffers earn less than $36,000 in base salary, according to an analysis of staff pay by the Eagle. A report by Politico on Thursday found that 42 staffers were paid between $27,300 and $35,100.

The Eagle obtained a list of 408 staffers working for councilmembers, current as of August, and compiled the annual rate of pay for 354 who were included on SeeThroughNY, a database of publicly available salary information for city and state employees (interns and some staffers were not included in the database). The rates of pay ranged from $5,000 for a part-time advisor to southeast Queens Councilmember I. Daneek Miller to at least $170,236 for Speaker Corey Johnson’s chief of staff — a higher salary than Johnson earns himself.

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 Total personnel spendingStaff countMedian salaryAverage salaryMinimum salaryMaximum salaryDifference
VAN BRAMER$353,0006$48,500$58,833$38,000$106,000$68,000

The data isn’t perfect. Some staffers, like the chief of staff for Councilmember Rory Lancman, got promotions and raises that aren’t yet reflected in the database. Others only recently started their first council jobs and have received only a few paychecks. Councilmembers also give periodic bonuses that supplement base income. But the “rate of pay” review provides a window into the disparate wages paid to the behind-the-scenes workers who craft city policy — and get the potholes fixed.

“The staff here at the council work so hard to support their members, and I don’t think the pay reflects that,” said one Brooklyn aide. “Some councilmembers cruise on by and are getting paid a lot of money and really exploit their staff.”

Now, aides who have been fighting back against harassment and abuse at the hands of some members say they are focusing additional organizing energy on pay disparities and low wages.

“Thinking back to the raises for the councilmembers, there were people who were pissed off then,” the Brooklyn aide added. “You get a $36,000 increase and you don’t give anything to your staff?”

Staffers were provided anonymity for this article to speak freely and without fear of retribution.

Up to the boss

Councilmembers earn $148,500 per year, but staffer pay is at the discretion of each individual lawmaker.

All 51 city legislators receive an annual lump sum from the council to pay for office space, work expenses and staff salaries. They have the autonomy to hire as many staff members as they want: Councilmember Mathieu Eugene has 12 staffers, according to the staff list, whereas Councilmember Francisco Moya has three, plus three interns, his spokesperson said.

In 2018, the council allocated additional money for members’ budgets, but the extra cash came with no strings attached, meaning it didn’t necessarily make it into staffers’ paychecks.

At times, compensation can stretch the bounds of labor law.

“There’s no overtime, no comp time — if you were to divide up the hours, some staffers are working by their salaries, some are not making minimum wage,” said a veteran Queens staffer. “Some colleagues work for really tough members who are workaholics and expect their staffs to be on their phones all night, and others are really respectful of their staffers’ time.”

A Brooklyn aide said an inquiry about staff salaries for this story prompted her to search payroll information to find out what her colleagues make. The wage revelations caused her to question how some of her colleagues can afford to live in New York City.

Bronx Councilmember Ritchie Torres described similar issues in a 2016 interview with Gotham Gazette ahead of the vote to raise member pay.

“You have City Council staff who are performing professional functions on complex matters of budgeting, land use and policy, without professional salaries,” Torres told the Gazette. “[I]f you were to divide the salary of a dedicated council staffer by the number of hours worked, the City Council may very well be guilty of wage slavery.”

Torres employs nine staffers, according to the list obtained by the Eagle. They earn a rate of pay ranging from $11,000 for an aide to $90,000 for the chief of staff, according to SeeThroughNY. Torres did not respond to a request for comment about staff roles and full-time employment status. His staff titles are not available on the council’s website

Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer said he factors the number of hours his staff works into salary decisions and gives annual bonuses that are not reflected in their rate of pay on SeeThroughNY.

“Given the budgetary constraints that we’re faced with, I wish we could pay everyone more and I think everyone deserves more,” Van Bramer said. His chief of staff earns $106,000 per year, while his scheduler makes $38,000.

In Councilmember Andy King’s office, none of the nine staffers have a rate of pay above $50,000; four earn $35,000 or less. King’s alleged ethics violations and serial harassment resulted in suspension and galvanized the current workers’ rights movement among staffers. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Staffers have begun unionization efforts, an initiative that some councilmembers, including Johnson, say they support. “Corey is a long-time supporter of the labor movement, and would never oppose any organizing efforts,” a council spokesperson said.

Central staff members — aides who work for the council as a whole and not individual members — already earn a minimum salary of $52,000. But it’s up to the members themselves to create uniform salary floors or mandatory minimum wages for their aides.

“Legislative staffing presents a unique situation where lawmakers and only the lawmakers can regulate that,” said Ken Girardin, an analyst for the Empire Center, a policy think tank that runs SeeThroughNY. “It’s the lawmakers who need to set that policy.”

So far, none seem to have the political will to sponsor measures addressing staff pay, said the aides interviewed by the Eagle for this story.

The eagerness to share their pay concerns for this story — albeit anonymously — comes as staffers flex their muscles as an organized group. Earlier this month, more than 120 staffers wrote an open letter to Speaker Johnson denouncing the way the council handles complaints of harassment and abuse. In February 2018, 100 staffers sent a letter to Johnson asking him to address pay disparities, Politico reported.

Now their efforts are gaining more momentum and public attention.

“We shouldn’t let the story die. We’re going to keep drumming and demanding changes until something changes,” the veteran Queens staffer said. “We’re determined and fighting as hard as we can.”

Difficult to compare roles

Council staffers are the Swiss Army knives of municipal politics, representing their bosses at community board meetings, fielding complaints from angry constituents and drafting the legislation that shapes the city — sometimes all in one day.

Even when staffers share the same job titles, it can be hard to meaningfully compare roles across districts or even within the same office.

Regardless of their responsibilities, most staffers are technically referred to as “councilmanic aides,” the title listed with their names in SeeThroughNY.  They also have “business card” titles, said Scott Seiber, the deputy chief of staff and communications director for Queens Councilmember Peter Koo. Those titles tend to have a few backslashes, reflecting the jack-of-all-trades nature of the job.

“Almost all of us go to meetings, do intergovernmental work, pick up the phones, handle walk-ins, event coordination and case work spanning every topic from immigration to emergency services,” Seiber said.

The various roles make it “hard to judge the exact work responsibilities” across offices, “especially when working in a legislative environment,” said Girardin, the Empire Center analyst and a former State Senate staffer.

Take the position of “legislative director.” The rates of pay for legislative directors range from $37,000 in Queens Councilmember Eric Ulrich’s Ozone Park office to $71,000 for the legislative director in Councilmember Costa Constantinides’ office across the borough in Astoria. Both have additional titles as well: “community liaison” for Ulrich; “counsel” for Constantinides.

The position “community liaison” has an even broader spectrum of salaries. A part-timer working for Councilmember Barry Grodenchik has a rate of pay of $7,000, while a full-timer for Councilmember Mark Levine earns $54,000.

Michael Cohen, who serves as spokesperson for Queens Councilmember Karen Koslowitz, used his own various roles to explain the possible disparities.

“My title is communications director, but in addition to that I handle property tax problems, Department of Buildings problems and land use problems,” Cohen said. “From office to office, even though we have the same title, we have different responsibilities.”

Despite the sometimes low pay, one staffer said he’s grateful for the flexible work environment his councilmember provides. He is paid less than $30,000, but the office accomodated unexpected family obligations.

“I may overwork and be underpaid sometimes, but … my office has made adjustments for me that I have heard, and can’t imagine, other offices making,” the staffer said. “I have done work that is greater than what I have been paid for, but I also feel like I’ve done work that is less than what I have been paid for, so I feel like it has evened out.”

Mounting work for council staffers

Others say they are resentful that the added responsibilities don’t necessarily come with a wage bump.

One aide to a Queens councilmember said her boss recently shoveled extra roles onto her already full plate. But the aide couldn’t push back without risking a reputation for “not being a team player” — a career killer.

“The options were not have a job or to accept it,” the aide said. “I wish I was the only one going through this, but it’s throughout the council.”

“Members have families, and being on the campaign trail and in the public eye is hard, but I think that is softened by a six-figure salary,” added a Brooklyn aide. “Staffers make just as many personal sacrifices, can be under just as much scrutiny, especially with the added pressure of personally representing somebody else, but we are compensated with pennies.”

Additional reporting by Noah Goldberg, Cambria Roth and Ned Berke.

Correction (5:15 p.m.): A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that certain committee chairs earn more than $148,500 per year.

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