Ever since rioters flooded into the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, House staffer Renata Beca-Barragan has kept a pair of sneakers at the office. Just in case.
“‘Always have comfortable shoes under your desk,’” Beca-Barragan recalled a friend advising her in the aftermath of the violence. “Be ready to run when you have to.”
For Marlon Dubuisson, a District director who goes to the Capitol a few times each month, security alerts have taken on even more urgent meaning.
“Every time I've gotten one of those alerts, I've immediately messaged anyone who's [at the Capitol], asking if they're OK,” he said. “Just because you don't know, you know, how serious it is anymore.”
Those are just a couple examples of the way some Hill staffers say life has changed in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack -- months marked by a series of security alerts, evacuations and exponential growth in threats against lawmakers -- all on top of a grueling pandemic.
“It is relentless,” said Sharon Nichols, a communications aide. She said that, while it’s an “honor” to serve, “there are also risks that come with it. I think we've seen that this year.”
The News4 I-Team sat down with four House staffers -- each of whom work for different members from different parties -- to discuss life after the insurrection and whether it’s causing some to rethink their service.
Three of the four staffers interviewed by the I-Team say they know at least one person who left the Hill in part or because of the January violence.
“I think they felt frustrated that this is the environment they're in,” said Brandon Wear, a former House communications aide who recently took a job in the private sector – but who said not due to Hill-related stress. “They just didn't want to be part of something … where the tensions are so high and options to do anything about it can be limited.”
Beca-Barragan said it wasn’t just one issue that caused a friend of hers to leave.
“I think it's a mix of everything,” she said. “All the division and all the risks and just that the stress just never ends.”
Dubuisson said COVID-19 may have played a role in why one of his colleagues left, as it forced many to work remotely and increased their workload. But Jan. 6, he added, “was the final boiling point.”
With its notoriously grueling days and below-market pay, Congress has long been known to experience retention problems, especially among younger and lower-paid House staffers.
But some lawmakers have indicated that’s worsened this year amid the violence and pandemic and taken steps to stem the tide.
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In May, a trio of lawmakers -- House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. -- wrote a letter to the Chief Administrative Officer of the House, calling for a study of benefits available to House staffers.
“Knowing the full scope of benefits offered to House staff will help us better understand where gaps exist and opportunities to make House employment more competitive and more diverse might be found,” they wrote.
And in a statement to the I-Team, Congressman Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, said Congress “has a responsibility to not only protect [staffers] in the aftermath of January 6th, but to also ensure they are fairly compensated for the work they do on behalf of the American people.”
Following the Jan. 6 attack, Congress raised the salary cap for staff;has proposed increases to office budgets and employee mental health assistance programs; and helped members improve security, even at their district offices.
“Because our work situation has changed so quickly and so abruptly, perhaps even more resources are needed,” Beca-Barragan said.
Despite the challenges, many staffers like her said the work is worth the sacrifice.
“The work that we put in and the long hours that we put in, it's going to make other people's life better. That's really what drives me,” Beca-Barragan said.
“Really being on the front end of service … feels good,” Dubuisson added. “It feels good to help people.”
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Katie Leslie, and shot and edited by Steve Jones. Evan Carr, Anthony Pittman and Jenny V. Cushman contributed to this report.