The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Canadian Parliamentary Political Staffers

Article 6 / 14 , Vol 43 No 3 (Autumn)

The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Canadian Parliamentary Political Staffers

Like so many other Canadians, political staffers working for MPs and Senators on Parliament Hill and in constituency offices navigated some dramatic changes in their jobs in the early months of the global pandemic. In this article, the author reports on survey responses from 175 of these staffers and individual interviews with 10 MP staffers (representing all officially recognized parties in the House of Commons) and one Senate assistant. He notes that many staffers reported working longer hours and experiencing challenging work-life balance when working from home, frustration from the lack of information they received about government programs relating to the pandemic, and stress from the effects of isolation and fears about their health and safety when working from their offices. He concludes first by reiterating the important role political staffers, and particular frontline constituency office staff, play in assisting Canadians navigate the federal bureaucracy and, second, by cautioning parties and the parliamentary administration that counselling and services for staffers may be needed to minimize the harmful effects of this unprecedented period.

R. Paul Wilson

Like so many other Canadians, political staffers working for MPs and Senators on Parliament Hill and in constituency offices navigated some dramatic changes in their jobs in the early months of the global pandemic. In this article, the author reports on survey responses from 175 of these staffers and individual interviews with 10 MP staffers (representing all officially recognized parties in the House of Commons) and one Senate assistant. He notes that many staffers reported working longer hours and experiencing challenging work-life balance when working from home, frustration from the lack of information they received about government programs relating to the pandemic, and stress from the effects of isolation and fears about their health and safety when working from their offices. He concludes first by reiterating the important role political staffers, and particular frontline constituency office staff, play in assisting Canadians navigate the federal bureaucracy and, second, by cautioning parties and the parliamentary administration that counselling and services for staffers may be needed to minimize the harmful effects of this unprecedented period.

Introduction

In the middle of March 2020, the emerging COVID-19 global pandemic dramatically altered the work of Canadian parliamentarians both on Parliament Hill and in their ridings. From then until the September Speech from the Throne, the House of Commons has convened only occasionally and, by agreement of the parties, with reduced numbers of MPs; the government’s normal legislative agenda ground to a halt; standing committees were held online, if they have met at all; and travel restrictions, stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures have significantly curtailed MPs’ presence in Ottawa and any face-to-face engagement with their constituents. In short, the normal parliamentary world has all but turned upside down.

This was equally true for the political staffers in the offices of MPs and Senators. These staffers support every aspect of their principals’ activities, whether they work out of their MP’s constituency office or on Parliament Hill. As shown in Figure 1, 61 per cent of MP and Senate staffers who responded to a survey said that “many things have changed about my job” since the start of the pandemic, and a further 9 per cent said “my job is totally different.” Given the dramatic changes that took place as Canadians responded to the pandemic, this is not a surprise. But how exactly did their work change? Using interviews as well as survey data from the summer of 20201, this paper explores how the pandemic impacted the work environment and duties of parliamentary political staffers in the spring and summer of 2020. It finds that, overall, staffers experienced an increase in their hours and anxiety as they struggled to respond to the increased requests for information and assistance from constituents, although this was more true for those employed in the offices of MPs than Senators. While many staffers adjusted to working from home, many continued to work in their usual offices, not all of whom chose or even felt safe doing so. This highlights the different working conditions staffers experience and also points to the need for continuing attention to the parliamentary staff culture, including its impact on mental well-being.

The Parliamentary Political Staff Community in a Normal World: An Overview

In contrast with the growing scholarship paid to ministerial political advisors2, political staffers who are employed in the parliamentary context and work in the offices of Members of Parliament and Senators seldom receive focused study, although there are exceptions. Daniel Dickin, a political staffer himself, provides useful observations about the role of MP assistants on the Hill, while Peter MacLeod explores the work of staffers in constituency offices. Royce Koop, Heather Bastedo and Kelly Blidook’s study of Canadian MPs in their constituencies considers staffers only obliquely but points to their role as facilitators and even delegates for their MPs.4 Finally, some research has begun to examine the profile and work of parliamentary staffers through a gender lens.4

This paucity of research attention is surprising because parliamentary assistants are, by a wide margin, the most numerous species of political staffer in Ottawa. As table 1 shows, nearly 2,000 political staffers are paid by taxpayers to work in the offices of Canada’s 338 MPs and 105 Senators in order to support the political (though not the direct party or electoral work) of parliamentarians. Altogether, also including political staffers employed in the offices of opposition party leaders and caucus research bureaus,5 there are three times as many parliamentary political staffers as there are political advisors who work with ministers, including in the Prime Minister’s Office.6

MPs pay for their staff out of their office budget which, for the 2020-21 fiscal year, is set at $370,500 per MP,7 with some MPs eligible for supplementary allowances based on riding size and number of voters. This budget must cover not only staff costs but most office expenses including rent, hospitality and some (though not all) travel. Within these budgetary limits, MPs have almost complete discretion to hire staff based on their best judgement for fulfilling their parliamentary duties, save that the maximum annual salary for any one employee is set at $89,700.8 NDP MPs agree to hire staffers belonging to the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 232,9 and so their terms of employment are subject to the negotiated collective agreement as well as the House of Commons budget rules.

MPs’ main strategic choice is how to allocate between their Parliament Hill office in Ottawa and the constituency (or riding) offices located in their own electoral district. Almost invariably, MPs hire permanent staff in both the constituency and Hill offices. Typically, staff on the Hill deal with work related to legislation and lobbyists, committees, budgets and scheduling, though the latter can also be done in the riding. Dealing with constituent inquiries as well as supporting the MP with local events is usually handled by riding staff. Communications tasks, especially speechwriting, web site and social media management, drafting products such as householders and ten percenters, and media relations can be done out of either office, though working with the national media is often handled in the Ottawa office and local media from the constituency. However, strict categorization is impossible since MPs have different priorities and therefore allocate resources differently between their offices.

Table 2 shows the aggregate distribution of political staff by office and party based on the GEDS listing of staffers employed in MP offices in June 2020. On average, each MP employs a total of 5.2 staffers overall, with over twice as many in each constituency office (3.6) as on the Hill (1.6). Conservative MPs allocate somewhat more staff on the Hill (2.2 per office) than do the other parties, whereas Liberal and Bloc Québécois MPs on average employ more staff in each constituency office.

Gender differences in how staff are allocated between ridings and the Hill are well established.11 In June 2020 almost two-thirds of constituency staff (66 per cent) were female, including 70 per cent of CPC constituency staff, though only 56 per cent for the BQ. By contrast, over half of Hill staffers were male (55 per cent), ranging from 52 per cent male Hill staffers working for Liberal MPs and 79 per cent male Hill staffers with BQ MPs. These gender differences, especially the fact that constituency offices are heavily staffed with women, proved significant during the pandemic.

Senators also employ political staffers in their offices. Even in the new (mostly) nonpartisan chamber, senators still require staff to provide more or less the same range of services as MPs, though without direct constituency work. Altogether, as of June 24, 2020, there were 219 staffers listed on the Senate contacts web page. Most senators employ two or three staffers, though the Speaker, the government representative and other senators with leadership responsibilities usually employ more.

Parliamentary Staffers: Pandemic Working Conditions

The workaholic culture on Parliament Hill, is normally characterized by long hours, lack of job security, frequent receptions and work-related social engagements. How has the pandemic affected this work environment? For most staffers parliamentary pressures and the demands of the packed social calendar have eased. However, the weight of work hours has increased for a majority of respondents. This heavier work load has also been complicated by the challenge of balancing work with domestic duties and, for many, feelings of isolation from colleagues.

Hours worked per Week

Normally, staffers on the Hill tend to work longer hours than those in riding offices. According to a 2017 survey (see Figure 2), 36 per cent of MP Hill staffers average 50 hours or more of work per week versus only 17 per cent of constituency staff. This top end range is similar to the experience of ministerial policy staffers who average just under 60 hours a week.12 Even in normal times apart from a pandemic this is cause for concern. Paul Wernick, a Liberal MP staffer, revealed to The Hill Times newspaper that the pressures of 60 to 70 hour work weeks led to “’deep depression’” and two suicide attempts. He said, “’The unwritten rule is that, “You need to work whenever I [the MP] tell you that you need to work.”’”13

Parliamentary staff working for MPs saw their hours increase during the pandemic. Overall, 58 per cent of survey respondents reported that they were working either somewhat more (30 per cent) or a lot more (28 per cent) hours a week during the pandemic than previously. Staffers in both Hill and constituency offices are significantly more likely to say that they worked “a lot more” hours (32 per cent and 39 per cent respectively) than Senate staffers, only 13 per cent of whom worked a lot more (Figure 3).

Home or Office?

According to The Hill Times, Liberal Whip Mark Holland had said that the “vast majority” of MP in March staff were working remotely “unless there’s an absolute necessity.”15 But each MP judges necessity for themselves. Some required their staff to continue working from the office; others permitted employees latitude to make their own decisions.

Overall, two thirds of all staffers said that after March they usually (41 per cent) or always (25 per cent) worked from home, while only one third usually (12 per cent) or always (11 per cent) worked from the office. However, this varies by office. As Figure 4 shows, constituency staffers were significantly more likely to say that they always (28 per cent) or usually (23 per cent) went into the office to work than were Hill (always – five per cent, usually – eight per cent) or Senate (always – two per cent, usually – zero 0 per cent) staffers. Conversely, constituency staffers were significantly less likely to work at home. Just over a third of them said that they usually or always worked from home, whereas 77 per cent of MP Hill staffers and 88 per cent of Senate staffers say that they did so.

How much choice did staffers have in where to work? Overall, out of all the staffers who said that they at least sometimes went into the office, 69 per cent said that they choose to do so, and only 31 per cent say they were required to. But again, constituency staffers stand out here. While 83 per cent of Hill staffers said that they were able to choose whether to work at the office instead of at home (versus 61 per cent of riding staff), constituency staff (39 per cent) were significantly more likely than Hill staff (17 per cent) to say that they were required to work in the office.

Perception of Risk

Nearly three quarters of all staffers who at least sometimes went into the office were generally comfortable with the level of risk. A majority agreed that they were “somewhat anxious about being exposed to the virus but feel that health precautions are usually adequate” (52 per cent). An additional 25 per cent said that they were “completely comfortable working in the office and see no risk.”

However, there were significant differences between groups based on location and gender. As shown in Figure 5, men (32 per cent) were significantly more likely to be “completely comfortable and see no risks” than women (14 per cent). On the other hand, women (20 per cent) were significantly more likely than men (two per cent) to admit that they were “very anxious about the virus” and were “not comfortable going to the office. This was also true of constituency staffers generally: 15 per cent of them said that they were very anxious and not comfortable in the office as opposed to three per cent of Hill staff.

It is concerning that some staffers were required to go to the office even when they were clearly uncomfortable doing so. Figure 6 shows whether staffers who sometimes or always worked at the office had choice in doing so. Constituency staffers were significantly more likely than MP Hill staffers to say that they were “required” to work at the office (39 per cent versus 17 per cent) and significantly less likely than their Hill colleagues to say that they had choice (61 per cent versus 83 per cent). This is a concern. As a female Liberal constituency staffer wrote: “I did not want to continue working in office but was given no choice. I felt like the tasks I was doing in office would have been easy to do from home. My safety is at risk every day” (respondent 73). Surely the important work of dealing with constituents can be done without putting staffers in this position.

Working at Home: Impact on Effectiveness

Parliamentary staffers faced the same challenges in transitioning to working at home as many other Canadians. Some welcomed the change because they did away with their daily commute. Others mentioned the temptation to procrastinate or the difficulty of working on the kitchen counter. Overall, staffers were generally positive about their experience, but many expressed concern about work-life balance, isolation and access to required technology.

Respondents who had worked from home at least sometimes believe that they were effective in doing so. Nearly 60 per cent of them agreed either somewhat (32 per cent) or strongly (27 per cent) that they were just as effective working from home as they were at the office. But this sentiment is not universal since a substantial minority of respondents disagreed either somewhat (28 per cent) or strongly (14 per cent).

The increase in hours worked and stress put extra strain on staffers’ ability to balance their office duties with personal life. Numerous people mentioned the challenge of maintaining proper boundaries since these get “very blurred” (respondent 26). “You can never get away from your work” and “there is less respect of ‘work hours’ since we are all at home anyways” (respondent 124). One person “enjoyed the freedom of working from home” but “found I was tuned in to work matters all day and was increasingly tired,” mentioning “Zoom exhaustion” as a particular cause of this. (respondent 125).

Staffers with families felt this concern especially. “For those of us with young children, it has not been an easy experience,” wrote respondent 137. A CPC Hill staffer observed in an email that “my riding colleagues were working full-time hours as well as into the evening and night on many days, including weekends.” Married with children at home, he found that, while he worked as many hours as he could during the day, he ended up working “past 1 am three or four times a week” because this was the only time he could find to do concentrated work without interruption (CPC 2).

Access to Technology

Having access to the proper technology is vital for working at home, and about 78 per cent of respondents either somewhat agree (34 per cent) or strongly agreed (44%) that they had the necessary tools (such as computer and high-speed internet) to work from home properly. Generally, staffers appreciate the responsiveness shown by the House of Commons and Senate administration in assisting with these unprecedented circumstances: 86 per cent of respondents either somewhat agreed (45 per cent) or strongly agreed (41 per cent) that they had received the support they needed from the House or Senate administration. In particular, some respondents praised rule changes providing new flexibility to accept electronic documents and signatures in support of expense claims rather than only hard copies, answering a long-standing frustration for some offices. As a senior Liberal staffer noted in an interview, this flexibility was especially important since the pandemic took hold at the end of the fiscal year and many office managers were struggling to deal with the process while working remotely (LIB 1).

Not everyone’s experience was positive. Some offices lacked enough recognized devices to transition to online work from home, and access to high speed internet was a problem, especially outside of major urban centres. One constituency staffer observed: “I don’t have access to high speed internet and the constituency team has to split one [Microsoft] Surface book between three staffers unless we go into the office” (respondent 154). Some offices said that this was a problem until well into May (CPC 1). Another staffer reported the same problem and its eventual resolution. “We have since gotten computers for everyone,” she said, “which has made things much easier. With the House computer, I can do absolutely everything from home that I can do from the office so I don’t see a need to physically go to the office anymore” (respondent 76).

Isolation and Mental Health

Even though staffers generally believed that they were effective during the pandemic, over two-thirds of respondents somewhat agreed (47 per cent) or strongly agreed (21 per cent) that working from home made them feel isolated and out of touch with colleagues. “I feel lonely and isolated” and this makes it harder to be motivated, wrote one. Another observed that “in-person conversations and socializing events or moments during the day are essential to the job” (respondent 6). “A person is a social animal and work is a big part of sociability,” wrote respondent 27, adding “some folks might crash and one wonders what the state of staffers will be like post-pandemic.”

A senior Liberal staffer also worries about the mental health implications for staff. “It was a tough slog,” she said. “Staff were hearing sad stories at the same time they were worried about their own health and the health of family and social dislocation.” Also, she observed that “a lot of staff on the Hill live in small downtown apartments and are isolated from their family and usual networks” (LIB 1). She thinks, given the many contributing factors, it is incumbent on parties and the House of Commons to monitor the long-term impact of the pandemic on staffers.

Political Staff Duties During the Pandemic

How exactly did political staff duties change during the pandemic? In large part, this depends on office location, whether on Parliament Hill (working for an MP or a senator) or in a local riding.

Work in the Constituency Office

Constituency offices represent a physical presence for Members of Parliament within their ridings and allow a personal connection with voters. This is crucial because MPs (usually) intend to contest the next election, and constituency offices, although not involved in partisan activities, help to build or maintain their profile and develop a reputation for responsiveness. Apart from personal political advantage, however, many MPs derive satisfaction from their role serving their community16 and take pride in providing open-door service to constituents regardless of partisan considerations.

Staff assist MPs to reach out into the community in different ways. MPs are local dignitaries and receive invitations to far more events than they can personally attend. Staff will identify events, triage invitations and, increasingly, represent MPs at events when the MP is in Ottawa or is double-booked. The most substantial effort within constituency offices, however, relates to casework: helping constituents navigate the federal government and assisting them in resolving problems. The volume of casework can be high—MPs report that their offices open hundreds of new files each year—and time consuming since complex files can take years to resolve.17

Frequency and Type of Public Contacts

During the pandemic, constituency offices were usually closed to the public, even when staffers were still at their desks. This all but eliminated walk-in visits. Yet, almost entirely relying on telephone and email, offices maintained service to the public, and, overall, staffers reported an increase in inquiries from the public during the pandemic. Almost half of all staffers (48 per cent) said that the public contacted their office “much more than before,” and a further 14 per cent agreed that public contacts were “somewhat more than before.”

Staffers reported that the normal sorts of questions kept coming about ongoing government programs such as immigration, EI and pensions. In fact, well over two-thirds of both constituency and Hill staffers thought that these bread-and-butter questions were either somewhat more (21 per cent) or much more (51 per cent) than usual.

The big change was the volume of inquiries related to the pandemic. Table 3 shows the frequency of public communications as reported by staffers working in MP Hill and constituency offices. Nearly all MP staffers said that they either frequently (22 per cent) or very frequently (77 per cent) received questions related to federal government pandemic support programs for individuals and businesses, and almost 90 per cent said that they frequently (36 per cent) or very frequently (52 per cent) answered questions about federal regulations related to COVID-19 such as international border or air travel restrictions.

Not only was volume of inquiries up, but, as one staffer noted, inquiries tended to come “in large waves, depending on the news cycle and issues.” This was problematic because, given the emergency context and how quickly decisions were being taken by all levels of government, information lagged behind questions. “We had no special access,” explained one Conservative constituency staffer, “and the government did not communicate with constituency offices at all” (CPC 1). Many staffers felt that this put them in a bad position. “It was difficult to provide information to constituents because it changed so rapidly and we learned about programs the same time as the public did on the news,” one constituency assistant wrote. “People were frustrated by our lack of knowledge” (respondent 107). Another staffer wrote: “What was most frustrating was how little the government communicated with us about its programs. Everything I knew about [pandemic emergency] programs I learned from Trudeau’s press conferences on TV. Our constituents were looking to us for more detail and information and we just didn’t have it” (respondent 34).

More than a few staffers had harsh words for government agencies, Service Canada in particular. On March 26 all Service Canada offices were closed with assistance only available by phone or online.18 MP constituency staff clearly felt that consequently they were forced to deal with desperate people who could not get assistance elsewhere, especially those who lacked either computer access or computer savvy. “The telephone has become an obsolete device, and moving everything online left people behind,” one staffer commented in an interview (CPC 1). “Our office had to do the job of front-line Service Canada employees,” wrote another. “There are people in this country without access to computers and there was no one to assist with a paper copy of forms. Our office was constantly providing downloaded forms and had to meet with constituents….We are exhausted trying to keep all the cases going!!!” (respondent 156).

Assisting constituents who were stuck in other countries due to pandemic travel restrictions was also something that MP Hill and riding staffers reported dealing with frequently (44 per cent) or very frequently (35 per cent), though constituency staffers (45 per cent) were significantly more likely to deal with these questions very frequently than were staffers in Hill offices (25 per cent). One Liberal riding staffer said that during the first month of the pandemic, his office dealt with 70 cases of stranded constituents (respondent 67). Bloc Québécois staffer Charles Gascon said that his MP’s riding office provided “nonstop 24-hour service to people who were stuck everywhere.” He explained how he and his colleagues acted as an office of “last resort” for people who could not find help elsewhere and kept in close contact with citizens abroad, providing them with information about Canadian government services and asking questions about their personal safety and arrangements. Ultimately, all they could do was exchange information and, if necessary, contact the Minister of Foreign Affairs’ office on their behalf. But he felt that they were providing an essential service. In the end, he estimated that his office helped to “repatriate” 36 constituents; and that all BQ offices together repatriated over 2,000.

Stress and anxiety

Even in normal times constituency staffers are front-line workers serving the public and are therefore exposed to the risk of political or personal abuse in a way not experienced by their colleagues working in the security of the parliamentary precinct.19 An incident in early August 2020, where a female staffer in MP Catherine McKenna’s riding office endured a hate-filled, misogynistic tirade from a member of the public,20 demonstrates the potential for violence which politicians, especially female politicians, and their staff are subject to. While behaviour like this cannot be blamed on the virus, the pandemic has increased anxiety and frustration for many people and this has led to tension in dealings with MP staff, especially (though not exclusively) in riding offices.

“COVID-19 has added a lot of stress to the public, to individuals, to groups and organizations and to businesses,” wrote one constituency staffer (respondent 121). Another constituency staffer said much the same: “That stress has come across in their communications with our office and has affected me and other staff. It has been a difficult time” (respondent 115).

Sometimes staffers excused constituents’ reactions. A constituency staffer explained how people calling in were “more angry and more abusive” than usual, but attributed this to the fact that callers were often afraid of losing their jobs or businesses, or were afraid for their own health or their family’s health. Moreover, they were frustrated by their inability to get through to Service Canada or CRA. “Once they had a live, breathing person [on the phone] who couldn’t answer their questions, it all came dumping out” (CPC 1).

Access to Government Information

The Samara Centre for Democracy has argued that, by providing assistance with casework to constituents, MP offices are helping to absolve the government from properly staffing and help to “paper over a broken bureaucracy.”21 This may be true, but it is hard to imagine that local constituents will stop calling MP offices for help. Some people fall through the bureaucratic cracks, especially those uncomfortable navigating the online world, and MPs have strong incentives to respond to people’s needs. It would be helpful if government departments and ministerial offices recognized this by providing more information to constituency offices, including direct access points such as “hot lines.” Some departments have done this previously. But some staffers noted that during the pandemic even their usual lines of communication into government were not working. “We had no special access,” one staffer said. “The regional offices we’d [usually] contact were closed” (CPC 1). A crisis is no time to cut off information and more should be done to keep communication open.

Work in Parliamentary Offices

While constituency staffers predominantly provide services to the public, staffers in parliamentary offices support MPs and Senators in their role as legislators and in scrutinizing the executive and holding it accountable. Normally this involves activities that revolve around the MP personally and around the MP’s work in the chamber, in committee, and in caucus. And normally, when parliament is sitting, MP and Senate staffers work long, intense days. But what does their job look like when the boss comes to Ottawa only seldom, if at all? What happens when there are no speeches to give, few votes to attend, and when committees are online or on hold?

Hill staffers shift to support constituency staff:

Overall, 58 per cent of MP Hill staffers agreed that the public contacted them during the pandemic “much more than before.” This heavy volume of public inquiries more than made up for the evaporation of normal parliamentary work, as they shifted to provided support to their constituency office colleagues. “Mid-March to the end of May was consistently much busier than usual, even compared to a sitting schedule week,” said one Conservative Hill staffer. “As a leg[islature]-focused staffer I had to significantly retool and supplement colleagues who were more typically front-line staff” (respondent 93). A Liberal Hill staffer said that the volume of work in the pandemic was “unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in six years of working for this MP. Woke up every day to hundreds of unread emails. Phones rang nonstop. Completely unprecedented. We became essentially full-time front-line staff.” (Respondent 15).

Senate staffers did not have the same opportunity to make this shift because they have no constituency counterparts. This explains why half of Senate staffers report that public contacts to their office were either the same as before (21 per cent), somewhat less frequent (21 per cent) or much less frequent (eight per cent). Indeed, a plurality of Senate respondents (31 per cent) said that they had no opportunity to observe the frequency of public contacts, which suggests it was not a big part of their work.

Some MP staffers, however, especially those working with caucus officers and with opposition critics, were busy with parliamentary duties, although much changed from usual by the COVID-19 context.

House Negotiation and Coordination

Normally each party’s house leader and whip coordinate and manage the work of their own party’s MPs in the Commons chamber and in committee, and they coordinate with other parties to ensure (so much as possible) the smooth functioning of the House.22 Day to day, this is often done by their staff. However, during the pandemic this work was “drastically different,” as one NDP staffer said, because of the suspension of the Standing Orders. In effect, all parties had to agree to all measures, and so negotiation became much more complex in an environment where the usual rules were out the window. “We have to start from scratch every time” and so “there are a lot more behind the scenes discussions” and negotiation than usual (NDP 1).

For example, parties had to reach agreement on reduced attendance in the House, proportional to each party’s overall seat count—a “collegial process,” according to Conservative Whip’s assistant Sebastien Togneri. Staff then had to negotiate with MPs to establish what the NDP staffer called “draft line ups” for who was going to attend. This was tricky, he explained, because “there’s pressure from constituents for MPs to be here” in Ottawa, yet some MPs were not comfortable doing so and, especially for MPs who lived a long way from Ottawa, travel was not convenient or, sometimes, safe. So staff needed to take these considerations into account and assess who had a good argument for attending (NDP 1).

Staff from the office of each party whip customarily work to assist and coordinate their MPs in the lobby adjacent to the Commons chamber. Social distancing during COVID meant fewer staff just as it meant fewer MPs, but staff for party whips continued to manage the lobby. They were augmented by communications staffers, from minister’s offices or from opposition leaders’ offices, as well as staffers from opposition critics’ offices brought in for communications support or policy expertise on specific issues such as bills or Estimates. Togneri noted that, since the pages were excused from their duties during the pandemic, their usual chore of delivering messages to and from MPs fell to the whip’s office staffers running each party’s lobby desk.

Research and Communications

Some staff work during the pandemic resembled normal activity. Communications staffers prepared press releases, maintained websites and managed social media accounts. Policy and political research continued, whether on key issues, filing Access to Information requests or working with MPs to submit Order Paper questions (NDP 2).

However, the unprecedented suspension of Parliament as well as the urgency and high stakes of the government’s pandemic response measures created intense pressure on MPs and staff alike for all parties, but especially for the opposition. As Ian Brodie, special advisor to Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and former chief of staff to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, pointed out in an interview, even if the government provided an embargoed copy of a bill to the opposition before tabling, the embargo did not permit consulting outside experts, so opposition party staffers, either in the office of the relevant critic, or in the leader’s office or party research bureau, had to analyse the bill on their own in the limited time provided. Once the bill was tabled, staffers had to quickly verify that it matchesdthe embargoed copy and be ready to advise MPs about the legislation.

Providing Information to caucus

As noted above, MP offices were frustrated by the lack of timely information available on government initiatives. Perhaps understandable since policies were being developed so quickly, this necessitated parliamentary staffers obtaining and disseminating information as quickly as they could to their colleagues on the front lines.

For opposition parties, much of their knowledge of government programs resided in the offices of shadow ministers and, according to one Conservative constituency advisor, staff in these critics’ offices “were heavily leaned on” to flow information to their caucus’s constituency offices. Information was also disseminated by staff working for each party’s caucus officers. The BQ whip’s office, for example, prepared daily messages to brief all their MPs on what the prime minister and provincial governments were saying as well as information on new pandemic programs as soon as it was available (Gascon). The Liberal Research Bureau (LRB) conducted briefings for Liberal MPs where ministers attended and answered questions. These briefing had been done in the past with big files on a one-off basis, a senior Liberal staffer reported. But during the pandemic they were provided on a daily basis and were well received by MPs. LRB also conducted conference calls and digital webinars for Liberal office staff across the country several times a week in order to “put all staff on an equal footing” (LIB 1). Information dealt not only with the substance of files and best practices in terms of process but also information relating to mental health supports available to staffers.

Supporting MPs in Committee

Normally parliamentary staffers spend significant time and effort supporting MPs and Senators with their committee responsibilities. This can include tasks such as researching subject material and potential witnesses, reading witness briefs and preparing questions, advising on tactics at committee meetings, negotiating with other offices – whether their own party or another party – about committee business, helping to research and draft reports (especially for opposition staffers) and, of course, staffing MPs and Senators during actual committee meetings.

Like many other things, this changed during the pandemic. From March 24 to the end of July, nine out of the 27 House of Commons standing committees did not meet at all, and an additional five committees met only once. Only six out of 18 Senate standing committees had been constituted since the October 2019 federal election, and only five of these held meetings between mid-March and the end of July.23 However, some committees met frequently. On the Commons side, the Finance committee met 35 times, the Health committee 26 times, and Procedure and House Affairs 24 times. On the Senate side, the National Finance committee met 10 times and Social Affairs met eight times.

All committees except one met virtually online and not in person. The exception was the House of Commons Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic which, although consisting of all MPs, met in a hybrid form 25 times, with most members participating remotely via the internet but some, under the social distancing agreement negotiated amongst the parties, attending in person.

Virtual committees posed a challenge for staffers. For one thing, the burden was not evenly distributed. Since a few committees met very often and most committees seldom or not at all, most staffers had little to no committee work on their plates. These staffers were free to focus on other tasks, such as supporting their constituency offices with public inquiries.

But for staffers supporting MPs on the busy committees, the work was substantial and challenging without face to face contact with one’s member. Being present online made it impossible to have a quick side conversation with the MP or discretely slip them notes during the meeting, which is often how staffers pass on salient information or advice, either proactively or in response to an MP’s request. Of course, staffers can send a text or an email. But this may well get lost. One NDP staffer said that some MPs complained about getting too many emails from people during committee, so staffers had to compete for attention with everyone else who has the MP’s phone number.

Conclusion

Examining the work of parliamentary political staffers during the pandemic draws attention to the vital but often unrecognized role that they play behind the scenes in supporting Members of Parliament and Senators with their entire range of responsibilities.

In particular, the pandemic has shown the importance that MP offices can play in providing services to Canadians, especially last resort services to people without the resources or ability to navigate online government. Departments and minister’s offices should recognize this role and do their best to ensure that lines of communication are kept open.

It’s common knowledge within the Hill community that MPs differ widely in their employment practices; for example, in how much they pay and what work they require. The survey of staffers clearly shows that working conditions were also highly variable during the pandemic. Despite the public story line that MP offices were closed and everyone was working at home, substantial numbers of staffers were still going into the office at least some of the time; and some of them were required to do so, no matter how reluctantly. Of course, some staffers needed to be present in person, especially those supporting MPs physically present during socially-distanced sittings of the House. However, available technology means that for most offices and most staffers, working entirely at home was a practical, if not perfect, solution. House of Commons personnel should ensure that all MP offices have the technology, including computers and internet access, needed to work seamlessly from home, and parties should strongly encourage their MPs to respect their employees’ sensitivities in terms of safety and risk.

Like so many Canadians, political staffers carried personal anxieties about their own and their families’ health and well-being, adjusted to working from home and struggled to balance work with household responsibilities. However, staffers also bore significant pressure in helping to respond to their constituents’ urgent needs, and were on the receiving end of a great deal of frustration and anger. Even in normal times, parliamentary staff culture can be toxic for staffers’ mental health. The longer term impact of the pandemic is not yet apparent, but it has the potential to increase these challenges. It is therefore important for the House of Commons and for parties to continue to provide counselling and services to staffers to minimize harmful consequences.

Notes

1 Interviews were conducted with 10 current MP staffers representing all four officially recognized political parties, and with one Senator’s assistant. Some, with their consent, are named; others are identified with a party abbreviation, e.g. LIB 1, NDP 2. A bilingual survey was distributed in July 2020 to all MP and Senate staffers. In total, 175 responses were received from either MP Hill (73), MP constituency (55), or Senate (47) offices. The exact number of survey recipients is unknown since distribution was by group email addresses. While this worked smoothly for Senate offices, the first email to House of Commons offices was entirely blocked by the firewall. Two subsequent attempts to differently configured address lists resulted in a high number of undeliverable responses, as well as auto-generated messages that the inbox was not being monitored. Based on the overall number of staffers (see table 1), the overall minimum response rate is 9%, with different minimum response rates for MP Hill (13%), MP constituency (5%) and Senate (21%) offices. For further explanation of methodology, please contact the author at paul.wilson@carleton.ca.

2 For example, see Jonathan Craft, Backrooms and Beyond: Partisan Advisors and the Politics of Policy Work in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

3 Daniel Dickin, “Organizing the Halls of Power: Federal Parliamentary Staffers and Members of Parliament’s Offices,” Canadian Parliamentary Review, 39 (2), 2016, pp. 8-16; Peter MacLeod, The Low Road to Democratic Reform: Constituency Offices, Public Service Provision and Citizen Engagement, 2005. http://www.theplanningdesk.com/lowroadreport.pdf; Peter MacLeod, “How to Organize an Effective Constituency Office,” Canadian Parliamentary Review, 2 (1), 2006, pp. 9-12; Royce Koop, Heather Bastedo and Kelly Blidook, Representation in Action: Canadian MPs in the Constituencies, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2018.

4 Feodor Snagovsky and Matthew Kerby, “Political Staff and the Gendered Division of Political Labour in Canada,” Parliamentary Affairs, 72 (3), 2019, pp. 616-637. Meagan Cloutier and Melanee Thomas, “Representation on the Front Line: Gender and MP Staff in Canadian Politics,” Paper presented to the Canadian Political Science Association annual conference, Vancouver, BC, June 2019.

5 R. Paul Wilson, “The work of Canadian political staffers in parliamentary caucus research offices,” Canadian Public Administration 63 (3): 2020.

6 As of March 31, 2020, there were 669 full time ministerial staffers working in the Canadian government. Mario Dion, Annual Report in Respect of the Conflict of Interest Act 2019-2020, Ottawa: Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, Parliament of Canada, 2020, p. 3.

7 House of Commons, Members’ Allowances and Services Manual, Chapter 4: Budgets, April 1, 2020, p. 4-3.

8 House of Commons, Members’ Allowances and Services Manual, Chapter 4: Budgets (Appendix), July 1, 2020, p. 4-13.

9 United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, “Staff of the Federal NDP Achieve New Contract—UFCW 232,” http://www.ufcw.ca/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=31224:staff-of-the-federal-ndp-achieve-new-contract-ufcw-232&catid=9777&Itemid=6&lang=en

10 With very rare exceptions, GEDS lists staffers under the titles of constituency assistant, member’s assistant, parliamentary assistant and special assistant. The calculation in table 2 assumes that constituency assistants are based in the riding office, while other staffers are based in the Hill office.

11 See MacLeod, The Low Road to Democratic Reform, 2005, p. 11; Clouthier and Thomas, “Representation on the Front Line,” 2019, p. 6.

12 R. Paul Wilson, “Research Note: A Profile of Ministerial Policy Staff in the Government of Canada,” Canadian Journal of Political Science, 48 (2) June, 2015: 462.

13 Abbas Rana, “Liberal staffer urges all political parties to address mental health challenges, after his attempted suicide on the Hill,” The Hill Times, June 25th, 2018, pp. 1, 12.

14 R. Paul Wilson, “Political Staff Support to Canadian MPs,” paper presented at the International Political Science Association World Congress, Brisbane, 2018.

15 Laura Ryckewaert, “It’s a different world we’re all living in’: Vast majority of staff working remotely, focused on COVID-19 response.” The Hill Times, March 25, 2020, p. 6.

16 Terhas Ghebretecle, Michael Morden, Jane Hilderman and Kendall Anderson, Beyond the Barbeque: Reimagining Constituency Work for Local Democratic Engagement, Toronto: The Samara Centre for Democracy, 2018.

17 See Laura Ryckewaert’s series of stories in The Hill Times: “On the Front Lines: Constituency Aides are an MP’s ‘Eyes and Ears,’ Says NDP MP Kwan, and Her Team is a Busy One,” Feb. 5, 2018, p. 6; “’It’s Really a Window to the World’: Immigration Cases Front-And-Centre for Liberal MP Alghabra’s Busy Mississauga Centre Riding Team,” Feb. 12, 2018, p. 23; “On The Road Again: How Rookie Liberal MP Hutchings Tackles Riding Bigger than Switzerland,” March 19, 2018, p. 32.

18 Employment and Social Development Canada, “COVID-19: In Person Service Canada Centres to be Closed,” March 26, 2020. https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/news/2020/03/covid-19-in-person-service-canada-centres-to-be-closed.html

19 Cloutier and Thomas, “Representation on the Front Line,” 2019, pp. 13-16.

20 Aedan Helmer and Bruce Deachman, “Police Investigating Verbal Tirade Against MP McKenna and Staffers,” The Ottawa Citizen, August 11, 2020, p. A.2.

21 Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan, Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out about Canada’s Failing Democracy, Toronto: Random House, 2014, p. 110.

22 Alex Marland, Whipped: Party Discipline in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2020.

23 Statistics for House of Commons committees are taken from https://www.ourcommons.ca/Committees/en/Home on August 7, 2020, and for Senate committees from https://sencanada.ca/en/Committees as of August 18, 2020.