Congress staffers struggle after insurrection

By Katherine Tully-McManus
CQ-Roll Call/TNS
Congress staffers barricade themselves in a room after Trump supporters stormed inside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021.

WASHINGTON - They replay the day in their minds, hear threats when they pick up the phone, and try to keep doing their jobs. Congressional staffers are still struggling in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, whether they hid from the violent mob in their workplace or watched in terror from home.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi addressed the ongoing toll last week, when she told reporters that she attended a session on trauma hosted by the Office of the Attending Physician and Office of Employee Assistance. The items stolen from her office and the glass and furniture broken at the Capitol were simply violations of property, she said, even if they signaled a larger threat to democracy.

“I respect the speaker’s office and the accoutrement of history that is there. But I’m more concerned about the damage that they did to our staff, to our colleagues in the Congress, to the custodial staff,” she said. “That is damage. That is damage that must be addressed.”

More than a dozen congressional aides and workers within the legislative branch spoke to CQ Roll Call about the anguish of the past few weeks, most requesting that their names not be used so they could candidly describe their own mental health and the resources provided by their employers.

HELPLESSNESS AT HOME

As rioters overtook Capitol Police and stormed the building, some staffers took cover in offices, hiding under desks, donning gas masks and barricading doors. Many more watched anxiously from home, not knowing if their colleagues, friends or bosses would survive. They followed on live TV and tracked tweets and frantic texts sent from inside.

When asked how their teams were coping, a number of lawmakers and senior staffers emphasized that many had been working remotely already because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The hallways have been relatively empty for months, as the small city that is the Capitol complex adapted to the coronavirus. Before that, aides to senators and representatives would stand shoulder to shoulder in line for coffee with others in the 30,000-strong staff of the legislative branch, including Capitol Police and Architect of the Capitol workers, from custodial teams to experts in historic preservation.

But staffers who worked from home on Jan. 6 say they are traumatized too, describing feelings of guilt and helplessness.

“As soon as the Capitol was breached, I immediately thought of my co-workers,” one House staffer said in an email. “My co-workers were forced to evacuate and shelter in the halls of Longworth for hours, not fully aware of everything that was happening above ground. Not being able to fully communicate with them was anxiety-inducing.”

Another staffer who was teleworking on Jan. 6 said she is having a hard time, and being remote is making it even harder. Two days after the attack, she got on a long-planned video call with two staffers from other offices and finally shared some communal grief.

“That’s been one of the most cathartic things so far. My colleague asked, ‘So how are you guys really?’ and I think we were all immediately on the verge of tears,” said the aide, who works for a Senate Democrat.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly said his own family could relate. He was one of the last members to leave the House chamber before Capitol Police shot and killed a rioter trying to enter the Speaker’s Lobby right next door.

From half a world away, his daughter was glued to every detail as events unfolded. “My daughter’s in Australia, so she and my wife were literally on the phone for five hours, to console each other,” the Virginia Democrat said.

Some of his aides are reckoning with the fact that they have relatives who, much like the rioters, ardently support former President Donald Trump and believe the election was stolen from him.

“I could have been in that building and been killed, and you’re still defending that?” Connolly said, characterizing tough conversations and thoughts his staff may be having. “And every day there’s new details that come out, that it’s worse than we knew, which makes people relive it.”

He’s trying to lead with compassion and is thinking about circulating a book on recovering from trauma that his daughter recommended to him.

“There’s a lot of stress and anger going on,” Connolly said. “We’re validating feelings, whatever they are.

“Interestingly, the people I think who were struggling the most are the people who physically were not here,” he said.

Ohio Republican Rep. Steve Stivers told his staff that everyone needed to telework on Jan. 6, not because he feared violence but because with large crowds he thought commuting might be a problem. He was the only person from his team in the Capitol that day.

“But still, watching on TV the place you work every day be overrun by people is dramatic. So we have been checking on all the staff, talking to all the staff, making sure they’re OK,” he said.

While he’s been in touch with the House Administration Committee about what resources are available, he’s also worried about the Capitol Police officers who faced the violent hordes and then worked 12-hour shifts through the inauguration.

“I want to make sure that not just our staff, but the Capitol Police and others who have gone through a lot here get the help and support they need,” said Stivers, pointing to the death of an officer by suicide earlier this month.

On the Friday after the siege, Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne returned to her district in Iowa and called each member of her staff in Washington to check in on them. A handful had sheltered in place on the Hill that day, but most had been working from home.

“Such a mom move, but we appreciate her for it,” one of her staffers said.

Several of Axne’s aides have used the counseling services provided by the House, which Axne encouraged in her personal phone calls.

INSTITUTIONAL SUPPORT

The session on physical, psychological and vicarious trauma that Pelosi attended was just one of the options available to lawmakers and employees in the wake of Jan. 6, but some say it isn’t enough.

“Our office’s response for support for staff has been pretty paltry, which honestly is not surprising and reflective of the general lack of HR competencies on the Hill,” one Senate aide said.

A day after the attack, House staffers got a reminder of the resources always on offer from the Office of Employee Assistance and Employee Assistance Programs, like immediate counseling.

“As the House community comes together following yesterday’s tragic events, please note that all Members, House staff, and their families have access to the services provided by the OEA,” read the “Dear Colleague” letter from Chief Administrative Officer Catherine Szpindor.

Most staffers who talked to CQ Roll Call said that information reached them and their bosses encouraged them to use it.

On Jan. 8, the Office of the Attending Physician and the Office of Employee Assistance teamed up to send a message to staffers describing emotional and physical symptoms.

“While we will remain strong and persevere, it is common in times such as these to experience a wide range of upsetting emotions, thoughts, physical symptoms of stress, and even changes in behavior,” read the email.

“[We] want to assure you that such stress reactions are normal and even expected following exposure to a traumatic event of this nature, and that resilience is far-and-away the most common outcome following trauma,” it continued.

While websites, phone numbers and webinars are helpful to some, others are concerned about dynamics in the decentralized workplace that is Capitol Hill, where each lawmaker’s office runs in what can feel like its own little bubble.

“Both senior staff and the senator have paid lip service to the point, but I don’t think there’s really any leadership on it,” a Senate aide said.

She described senior staffers “offloading their trauma onto junior staff,” saying this gross mishandling wasn’t out of malice but stemmed from a lack of tools and understanding of how to communicate with employees who are all struggling.

Other staffers described a “get back to business” mentality, as the new year, new Congress, new president and the ongoing pandemic all mean a deluge of work on Capitol Hill.

One Senate legislative staffer focused on health care has felt an extra burden of providing resources to her peers, simply because she has relationships with mental health organizations. When the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention emailed her some resources, she hit “forward” to send them along to her colleagues.

What would really help her mental health is a few days off, she said. But with health care and the pandemic in the spotlight, she feels like she can’t. The feeling isn’t new, just exacerbated. She hasn’t felt comfortable taking time off since March 2020, when the coronavirus exploded in the United States.

Another Senate Democratic aide said that at every meeting and video call for at least a week after the attack, senior staff made sure to mention the mental health supports available, including links and phone numbers.

“I feel immensely supported by my boss and my chief. I think we all do. However, staff I talked to felt betrayed. I feel betrayed. The support we are lacking isn’t mental health support - it’s about any assurances whatsoever that it will be safe to return to the workplace,” he said.

He wasn’t sure that mental health or trauma support would quell a new feeling of fear he feels.

“I went into work that day confident that I would be safe. People said it might be dangerous, but I told myself the Capitol Police would be there so it would be fine,” the aide said.

Many said they had heard very little, if anything, from Capitol Police in recent weeks about safety in the Capitol complex despite intense media coverage about their workplace. They want guidance on how to best protect themselves in the future and answers about what went so horribly wrong on Jan. 6.

“This was traumatic not because of what happened but because of what we now know can happen. And that possibility never crossed my mind before Wednesday,” he said.

Images of Black and Latino custodial workers cleaning up broken furniture, broken glass and floors coated in pepper spray residue went viral in the days after the insurrection and ransacking of the Capitol, highlighting essential workers who can’t work from home during the pandemic. Multiple legislative staffers raised concerns in interviews about the accessibility of mental health resources for those Capitol complex workers who toil in obscurity.

All employees of the House and Senate, including custodial staff and other Architect of the Capitol teams, have access to the resources for both urgent and scheduled mental health assistance. Yet some who perform work in the Capitol, like food service contractors and military liaisons, are not technically employees of the legislative branch.

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers this week urged the House Chief Administrative Office and the Office of Employee Assistance to think bigger.

“It is our understanding that the OEA has rapidly scaled their services and are working around the clock to ensure that staff understands the resources available to them. Nonetheless, needs are increasing and we should expand these services to include all Capitol personnel who may be affected,” wrote Democrats Jason Crow of Colorado and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Republicans Nancy Mace of South Carolina and French Hill of Arkansas.

They also want to ensure there are “culturally competent services and resources for all employees, including those for whom English is a second language.”

'YOU ALL HAD IT COMING'

Many congressional offices saw a spike in phone calls in the days after the attacks, putting another strain on emotionally drained staffers.

“Our office is inundated with callers saying, ‘It was antifa’ and ‘You all had it coming,’” said an aide to a House Democrat.

Often, it falls on junior aides like staff assistants to field the calls and voicemails coming into an office. In pre-pandemic times, more experienced staff might overhear them getting slammed and give them a break or coach them through dealing with the aggression. But COVID-19 remote work has weakened some of those backstops.

“These are 20-somethings sitting alone in their apartment fielding these calls,” said the House Democratic aide. “Obviously, really abhorrent and demoralizing stuff for staff who have already been through a lot.”

Republican offices are also getting inundated from both the ideological right and left. Threats and other questionable calls and voicemails are being sent on to Capitol Police, as is standard, but staff are left to handle the vitriol.

The Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to build trust and effectiveness in the legislative branch, is urging offices to make changes, even if temporary, to their phone intake processes in an effort to protect staffers.

“Congress has changed the security barriers to protect physical health and survival of staff. But what has Congress done to change other barriers to protect the mental health and well-being of staff?” asked CMF President Brad Fitch and Katherine B. McGuire, chief advocacy officer for the American Psychological Association.

On Jan. 15 they called on managers in Congress to implement a specific slate of changes. Staffers should be allowed to end calls if verbal attacks occur, and multiple people should rotate through phone-answering duties, they said.

Some offices are already doing that. In Axne’s office, for example, staffers are rotating as they get hundreds of calls and voicemail messages each day related to the Jan. 6 attack.

Another House staffer said he wasn’t sure if his bosses were reporting abusive calls to Capitol Police. CMF wants every office to have a clear plan for documenting and reporting threats.

Fitch and McGuire are calling on lawmakers to update their official voicemail recordings and take a hard look at their websites. The “contact me” section should clearly state that it’s a federal crime to threaten the life of a member or staffer, they said.

'A SLAP IN THE FACE'

A noose and gallows were ominously erected outside the Capitol, and a man strode through the halls of Congress carrying a Confederate battle flag. The mob that attacked the building included undeniable symbols of white supremacy and violence against Black people.

Black staffers, many of whom marched to promote protecting Black lives against police brutality, watched as a diminished Capitol Police presence was overtaken by the overwhelmingly white horde, in some cases opening doors and taking selfies with insurrectionists inside the building.

“I’m not sure I can say I’ve truly been able to ‘cope’ with these events, but in this time I have prioritized self-care and allowing myself to feel the feelings I have instead of pushing them out of my mind,” one Black staffer told CQ Roll Call.

Talking to other aides has been essential, including members of the Congressional Black Associates, a staffer group with a 40-year history. “I find it therapeutic to talk with other Black Hill staff as well as past Hill staff about how Jan. 6, and frankly every day since, has felt,” the aide said.

In the face of white supremacist violence and imagery, the same aide said they are looking to the words of the late Reps. John Lewis and Elijah E. Cummings.

“When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked … what did we do to keep our democracy intact?” asked Cummings, a Maryland Democrat.

“You must be bold, brave, and courageous and find a way to get in the way,” said Lewis, a Georgia Democrat.

“When I think of their struggles and those that risked their lives during the civil rights movement, I tell myself, I must keep going,” the aide said.

On a call with members of the CBA and the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus last week, aides shared frustration. Some talked about having descended from slaves who built the Capitol in which they now work and a feeling of being betrayed by the institution, according to a person familiar with the call.

Black staffers have many unanswered questions about the light police response to the mostly white attackers, including what role implicit bias played and what kind of training Capitol Police had on that issue.

Aides with the CBA and SBLSC on the call indicated they want accountability but they also want to build a stronger relationship between police and Black staffers, maybe even inviting officers to informal meetings.

One Black officer, Eugene Goodman, was caught on video during the riot. He faced an oncoming mob all alone, at first trying to keep them back. But with a glance toward the Senate chamber doors and quick, strategic thinking, he led the rioters away from the chamber and toward a line of police. Goodman was promoted to acting deputy sergeant-at-arms last week, and legislation is pending in both the House and Senate to award him a Congressional Gold Medal.

Black staffers are hoping to better understand what Black officers are facing in the aftermath of the insurrection. According to a September 2020 report from the Capitol Police, 29% of sworn officers on the force are Black or African American, and 59% are white.

Herline Mathieu, president of the CBA, said the past month has only further exposed racial inequality and double standards of law enforcement, recalling the “daunting and overwhelming” police presence at Black Lives Matter marches in 2020.

“Unfortunately, as Black staffers, our grievances existed long before [the] attack on the Capitol,” Mathieu said in a statement.

“For us, the haphazard response of law enforcement was a slap in the face, which also causes concern for our safety in our work environment moving forward,” she said.

The staffer organizations that bring Black congressional aides together for professional development and networking are also hoping to encourage their members to prioritize mental health.

“After the insurrection at the Capitol, it’s even more important, especially as we continue to navigate our ever-changing new normals, that Black and brown staffers, many of which already feel responsible for solving racial issues surrounding racial inequities, have an outlet for wellness and a reminder of how important it is to prioritize mental health,” BréYhana Johnson, social chair for the CBA, said in an email.

CBA is hosting an event this week focused on mental health. “My hope is that, through social events, we focus on individual wellness while continuing to serve the American public,” Johnson said.

Black staffers are not the only people on Capitol Hill leaning on the words and efforts of civil rights movement icons as they look for a path forward.

When asked by CQ Roll Call what tools or self-care behaviors were helping her through the days after Jan. 6, one white Senate staffer said nothing was particularly helping.

“Except maybe watching the John Lewis documentary,” she said of last year’s “John Lewis: Good Trouble” by Dawn Porter. “I don’t know if that falls into any public health-approved approach, but I feel like if anything can show us how to move forward and make progress in dark times, it is John Lewis’ life.”

“It wasn’t my first watch,” she added. “Needs to be strategically deployed from time to time.”