Cornwall Ontario – Thank you, Paul Wernick, for having the courage to speak out.
The recent discussions triggered by Paul Wernick’s story about working conditions for staff on the Hill are long overdue. The working conditions that he described are accurate.
I was fortunate to have worked on the Hill in the 1980s, the 1990s and in the 2000s. Working conditions have changed over that span of years and not for the better. Pressure and demands on staffers have increased to unheard of levels, driven by a large part by new technologies and the demand for instant answers and a 24-hour news cycle.
Gone are the days when one would go to the Reading Room in Centre Block to search through newspapers looking for stories or to research an article. Today the staffer is looking through dozens of web sites on the internet and the information is no longer needed in hours or days- it is needed right at that moment. In the past it would often take 2-3 days for a story to get out there with sufficient force that a full-fledged counter attack was necessary. Today, a story appears on Twitter and its game over if you can’t reply in minutes. MPS, cabinet ministers, PMO and the OLO demand and expect instant answers. They expect every conceivable news outlet to be tracked IE no surprises. That puts immense pressure on limited numbers of staff who at the same time are also tasked with speech writing, setting up tours, attending committee meetings to help their MP, Question Period preparation and many more daily items that staff are charged with completing.
Add into that mix your job vulnerability. Job security does not exist. You are as secure as the last item you worked on. You can be let go at the whim of your boss and your place will be filled by some other eager staffer in the blink of an eye. Everyone working on the Hill knows that they are in a privileged position, they know they are doing a job that dozens of people want to do; and they know they must deliver top notch performance, day after day, or someone waiting in the wings will replace them.
I recall giving a speech in Montreal to a group which focused on what a typical day was like for a staffer in my position. For the 2 1/2 hours it took to get there and stand up to speak I turned off my Blackberry (that was one of the hardest things I have ever done). When at the podium, I handed it to someone in the front row and said turn it on- the buzz of incoming messages went on and on and on. Altogether 120 messages. Is it any wonder staff feel overwhelmed and in those days my Blackberry was never out of my hand?
When you went home or had a day off, your Blackberry went with you. When eating dinner, you were checking it, spending time with friends or family you were checking it. As a staffer you are on call 24 hrs. a day and I dare say a few of us have been lectured because your boss was writing a speech at 2 AM in the morning and you slept through their call. How many staff have had much needed vacations cancelled because “you are needed at the office”?
Staff survive because every few weeks the House allows MPs to head to their ridings. The volume of work for Hill staff drops and the riding staff take the brunt of the workload. The summer break also gives staff a chance to unwind a bit, but even then, the constant barrage of requests for information, answers, talking points, speech notes etc. continues- just at a slightly reduced pace.
There is no easy solution- staffing budgets are tight and with the media watching and commenting on how funds are spent, very few MPs will state publicly that they need a larger budget to hire more staff to meet modern day demands of the job. The same holds true for cabinet ministers, the Opposition Leaders Office and The Prime Minister’s Office.
Staff burn out is real, stress is real, mental health issues are real, and until the stories of the last week were written; I bet very few staff were even aware that systems were in place to help them. This is one area that a lot more internal publicity is needed.
Hill staff should thank that Paul Wernick for bringing this issue out of the corridors of power and into the open. As we go forward, the real test will be to see if MPs do something about it.