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A former top staffer in AOC's office said he left his position earlier this year mostly because he 'couldn't afford the job,' as the congresswoman fights for bigger budgets for staff paychecks

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Photo by TOM WILLIAMS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

A former senior advisor to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said he left his position on Capitol Hill earlier this year in large part because of low pay among congressional staffers.

"She's a great boss and I adored my colleagues," Dan Riffle, who was a senior counsel and policy adviser for the influential New York lawmaker, tweeted on Monday, "but with two kids in daycare I just couldn't afford the job."

Riffle was responding to a letter from lawmakers led by Ocasio-Cortez calling for a budget increase for House offices to boost staff salaries.

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More than 100 House members signed the letter, addressed to Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the chair of the House Committee on Appropriations. The lawmakers called for a 21% budget increase "to account for a much-needed increase in staff pay and benefits."

The letter said an increase would be an "important first step" in recruiting and retaining a "diverse and talented workforce."

A report from Insider's Kayla Epstein this week detailed shockingly low pay among many Capitol Hill staffers and the lengths some go to in order to live in Washington, DC, one of the nation's most expensive cities, while fulfilling their dreams of public service.

Junior-level staffers can start out in the low $20,000s to $30,000s in a city where the average one-bedroom apartment costs more than $2,000 a month. Some have resorted to working second jobs.

Riffle said the exorbitant cost of childcare in the city influenced his decision to leave Ocasio-Cortez's office - he told Insider that daycare on the private market cost about $2,000 to $2,500 a kid. With a hefty mortgage as well, Riffle said, the financial justification just wasn't worth it.

"Between daycare, mortgage, food, transportation, and other costs, we're basically treading water until we can get the kids into pre-K, which is free in DC," he said.

Congressional staff jobs are notorious for their low wages. But according to Riffle, it's not just the private sector that offers more competitive pay.

"Obviously, K Street pays more than Congress, always will," Riffle said, referring to the street known as a hub for lobbyists and advocacy groups. "That's not for me, but there's lots of nonprofit and local-government jobs where you don't have to compromise your values or work-life balance that still pay far more than mid-level congressional careers."

He said he had taken a new job in local government.

Riffle praised Ocasio-Cortez, who has been a vocal proponent of livable wages for workers, supporting a $15 minimum wage and frequently calling out corporations she believes don't offer financial security or opportunity for their employees.

"I think she has also led by example on the pay issue," Riffle told Insider.

Ocasio-Cortez has been outspoken about staff pay since she took office in January 2019. She's said that salaries in her office start at $52,000, almost double what some offices pay their most junior staffers.

"I appreciate that the congresswoman implemented a nontraditional system where she pays her chief of staff and director-level positions significantly less than the average on the Hill, which freed up more money to pay to younger, entry-level staff," Riffle said.

During his time on Capitol Hill, Riffle was vocal about the need to hire staffers from underprivileged backgrounds, especially at the entry level, where often only the wealthy and elite are able to take positions.

He said that "the way we underpay staff" makes it "infinitely harder for working-class people to make it to Congress and stay there."

Ocasio-Cortez's office did not respond to Insider's request for comment.

Each congressional office is given the same amount of funding for staff salaries - it's up to each lawmaker to decide how many staffers they'll hire and how to pay them.

But as congressional staffers wrap a historically difficult year with a pandemic, an insurrection, and an economic downturn, higher wages could be on the horizon.

DeLauro previously told Insider: "A workforce that reflects America's diversity is essential to a well-functioning Legislative Branch. I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure that Congressional staff compensation allows the House to recruit and retain a talented and diverse staff to help us carry out our important work."

This story and headline were updated with additional context on June 15.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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