Another aide to a House GOP member told of how staff were allowed to work from home for several days when an office colleague was thought to have been exposed. “Even then,” this person said, “many of my colleagues kept working in the office. We were told to report to work as normal even before the test came back negative because the results were taking too long. I was left feeling guilty for teleworking even though I have an underlying health condition.”
An administrative staffer who often visits multiple offices estimated that mask wearing was “nearly universal in Democratic offices” but was “probably under 50%” among Republicans.
Masking has become a “political minefield’ that creates awkward encounters on occasion, this person recounted: “[S]ome GOP offices ask why you are wearing a mask, which puts our staff in an awkward position — do you say because of the pandemic and risk the office taking that as a political stand? Do you take it off to make them feel better?”
Each office its own fief
Since the House began voting regularly again this summer, dozens, if not hundreds, of offices have reopened in some capacity, many with a skeleton crew but others — particularly GOP members — that have required nearly the entire staff to return to work in person.
And the return of hundreds of staffers has resurfaced a decades-old problem for the Capitol: More than 25 years after the Congressional Accountability Act passed in an attempt to reform the culture on Capitol Hill, it’s still an often brutal, unforgiving place to work.
Part of the problem is the scattershot human resources system spread across the Capitol complex. There is no centralized HR department — each of the 535 lawmakers and senators is his or her own employer, with their own set of office policies and protocols.
Staffers who may be uncomfortable with what’s happening in an office sometimes have limited recourse. For example, if a staffer is uncomfortable with the mask policies in an office, that person can reach out to the Office of Employee Advocacy — which provides free legal counsel to House staffers — or the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights.
But there isn’t some centralized database tracking staffer complaints or concerns, just like there isn’t a singular database to track potential coronavirus infections among the more than 20,000 workers who inhabit the Capitol complex, thousands of staffers and hundreds of lawmakers.
At least 86 Capitol workers have tested positive for coronavirus, according to a House aide familiar with the data. That includes 25 Architect of the Capitol employees, 28 Capitol police officers and 33 people working on the renovation of the Cannon building. But reporting is voluntary and doesn’t include data for House staffers or lawmakers who have tested positive.
Other aides note that overall, there appear to be relatively few coronavirus cases on Capitol Hill, suggesting many offices are indeed following public health guidelines.
Despite the swift move to mandate masks in the House earlier this week, Democratic aides say it’s unlikely Congress will start requiring testing for members, despite calls by some Republicans to do so. Republicans, those Democratic aides say, aren’t being fully truthful about the logistics of implementing a regular testing regime for hundreds of lawmakers and the Capitol staff and aides who would also need to be tested.
Instead, Democrats think the best solution is to fully enforce current policies, including the new mask mandate. If a member refuses to wear a mask on the House floor or in the connected office buildings and brushes off several warnings to do so, it is much more likely he or she will be escorted from the area until complying, according to Democratic aides familiar with the policy.
On the Senate side, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged people to wear masks, though he remains skeptical about the need to require them. Asked about the idea recently by Judy Woodruff of PBS, he said the Senate had experienced “good compliance” without a mandate. Pressed further, he said, “It appears not to be necessary since everybody seems to be doing it.”
Jake Sherman, Sarah Ferris, Heather Caygle and Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.