Yuh-Line Niou May Have Committed Wage Theft
The state assemblywoman from Lower Manhattan is running for Congress as a working-class champion. But public records show that she pays her own staffers poverty wages.
Back in March, I reported that several prominent Democrats in the New York State Assembly pay many of their full-time staffers around $30,000 a year - all of them from New York City. Despite branding themselves as champions of the working class, these members are barely paying their own employees the minimum wage in districts where the cost of living is among the highest in the country. In fact, because these positions typically demand well in excess of 40 hours a week, workers earning so little almost certainly make less than minimum wage of $15 an hour, given how many hours they’re actually putting in. One of the worst offenders is State Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, who announced a bid for Congress over the weekend.
Every year, the Speaker of the State Assembly allocates a fixed amount of payroll funding to each member that they can use to staff their office however they like. Within the Democratic conference, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie sets the floor for each office at around $180,000 a year. The system for determining how much payroll funding a member receives is extremely dysfunctional, for reasons outlined in my previous reporting. One of them is the fact that it incentivizes members to hire a large number of employees at poverty wages rather than a smaller number at a living wage, in order to extract as much labor from their staff as possible at the lowest cost.
Not everyone succumbs to this temptation, of course. Quite a few left-leaning lawmakers do practice what they preach and hire only as many staffers as they can afford to reasonably compensate. For example, here is the payroll data for the four members of the State Assembly affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America, as recorded in the legislature’s most recent expenditure report. Only eight months of data is available for members who took office in January 2021, but this is sufficient for us to estimate their employees’ annual salaries.
Zohran Mamdani, Phara Souffrant-Forest, and Marcela Mitaynes all employ three to four full-time staffers, none of whom make less than $52,000 a year. Same for Emily Gallagher, though this isn’t reflected yet in public records. Because the pay in her office looked a little low, I contacted her chief-of-staff to learn more. He told me that their part-time community liaison left in mid-July, followed by their full-time director of community affairs at the end of September. To replace them, Gallagher hired two new staffers who came on part-time over the summer, then transitioned to full-time in the fall as soon as the rest of their payroll budget freed up. Both now make around $60,000 a year.
Compare that to Niou’s office, where she’s had no less than eight and as many as nine staffers working for her at any given time over the past two years. With a payroll budget of just over $200,000 annually, there simply isn’t enough funding to employ so many people at a living wage. Before departing in 2021, her former communications director and deputy chief-of-staff were both making just over $31,000 a year working full-time. In the most recent twelve months on record, her full-time legislative director made just over $29,000. Niou’s last recorded hire started on July 22nd, 2021, and earned $4,142 working full-time during the most recent reporting period, which ended on September 30th. That works out to a little over $30,000 a year.
Recall that someone earning $15 an hour working 40 hours a week and 50 weeks a year would earn $30,000 exactly before taxes. Even if Niou’s office scrupulously enforced eight-hour workdays, four out of the five full-time staffers that she’s employed since 2020 still barely earned the minimum wage. But in light of the grueling hours that many legislative employees are known to work, it’s possible that they were functionally earning less than the minimum wage, depending on their schedules.
When I published this information back in March, Niou’s current communications director Max Burns wrote a long thread on Twitter criticizing my reporting. His chief complaint was that I’d gotten my facts wrong, and that “a decent chunk” of the four staffers in question were part-time workers, not full-timers as I’d described them. If that were the case, Burns could have told me so when I reached out to him seeking comment the day prior to publication. Instead he ignored me, waiting until after the story dropped to issue vague charges that it was riddled with errors.
Now I’m certainly biased, but I very much doubt that any such errors exist. Every six months, lawmakers are required to disclose how much they’re paying their staffers and whether they’re working on a full-time, part-time, or temporary basis. This data is compiled into reports that are available online for anyone to read. In the most recent eighteen months on record, the four staffers in question were all listed as full-time. If that isn’t true, it would mean that Niou’s office routinely misreported their status, and that her chief-of-staff is her only full-time employee. All of this strikes me as unlikely.
Moreover, Niou’s chief-of-staff Laurence Hong wrote his own lengthy response to the story on Twitter, and nowhere does he claim that the reporting is inaccurate. To the contrary, far from arguing that the staffers in question are being appropriately compensated for part-time work, he conceded that their salaries are far too low, but emphasized that Niou isn’t to blame:
“The plan of ‘just have less staff and pay them more’ in a district like this is problematic and difficult to wrap my head around…To start, we need about 4 different languages to effectively render constituent services in our district. This includes Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Fujianese. None of these languages actually overlap completely, and you’ll need specialized language abilities to provide cons. services. To note this is only for cons. services. This doesn’t include comms, a chief of staff, or a leg. director.
But, we’ve always been upfront about salary, it’s one of the first things I highlight when we interview a possible candidate…We’re transparent about how staffing budgets work, and make sure they understand the process before they accept an offer.
I appreciated the opportunity to think about this once again, and I'll send thank you notes to all the staff on our team because of it. We don't do this job for pay because we can't. Budgets are capped, but we do it for the opportunity to give back.”
First of all, whenever an employer says that a worker “doesn’t do their job for pay,” but rather “for the opportunity to give back,” it’s proof positive that crimes are being perpetrated in that workplace on a daily basis. Emotional blackmail about the needs of ‘the Movement’ or ‘the Community’ is frequently deployed by progressive NGOs to force their employees to accept unfair labor practices and hostile work environments. Staff often feel unable to advocate for themselves out of fear that doing so will damage their employer’s reputation or undermine its mission. This sort of language from Hong reveals the same dynamic is at work in the offices of progressive politicians too.
Second, while it’s true that Niou’s district is quite diverse and requires a specialized staff to meet its needs, other members of the State Assembly manage to thread this needle without committing wage theft. For example, Zohran Mamdani’s district in Astoria is home to the second-largest Arab population in the city, as well as large South Asian and Hispanic communities. In his office, all staffers are responsible for helping out with constituent services in addition to their other duties, and he’s hired a team capable of working with these populations. His community organizer speaks Arabic, and his communications coordinator speaks Hindi and Spanish. The idea that Niou requires eight or nine people on staff just to get by is preposterous. Invoking the plight of poor and working-class people of color in Lower Manhattan as an excuse to commit wage theft is perverse.
But that didn’t stop New York’s NGO mafia from leaping to Niou’s defense with these talking points back in March. On Twitter, Burns claimed that I was “targeting female lawmakers of color” with my reporting. One local journalist told me that after they shared the story on Twitter, they received multiple texts and DMs from progressive operatives haranguing them over it. Exploiting your employees and then sending your spokesman out to lie about it - all while your allies berate people behind the scenes for refusing to parrot the lie - should be disqualifying for anyone running for Congress, let alone someone posturing as a champion of the working class.
As an elected official, Niou has a responsibility to provide an accurate account of her office’s finances. The legislature has determined that payroll data for its employees is to be made available to the public, which is why it publishes an expenditure report twice per year. These reports indicate that as recently as 2021, Niou was paying people as little as $29,000 a year to work for her full-time. That’s illegal, and it’s precisely the sort of practice that government data transparency is intended to prevent. If the assembly’s expenditure reports are not accurate, she should correct the record.
Yet Niou’s office is still refusing to substantiate the claim that the staffers in question were working part-time, or provide any further details about her payroll practices. Two days ago, I sent follow-up inquiries to her congressional campaign email and DM’ed them to Max Burns on Twitter, but I have yet to receive a reply. To make the best-faith effort possible, I also contacted Ravi Mangla, a spokesman for the New York Working Families Party who was among those perturbed by my previous reporting. I asked him if he would forward the questions to Niou and perhaps encourage her to answer them. He follows me on Twitter, so he definitely got the notification, but I never heard back from him either.
It was always a long shot, though - the nonprofit crowd aren’t exactly fans of mine. Niou and company are welcome to continue dismissing Vulgar Marxism as merely “Some Guy’s Blog,” replete with unverified gossip from a “contrarian twink Substacker.” But I’m afraid that there’s no such thing as a 31-year-old twink, and the only information reported here is the information that Niou herself has reported the State Assembly. If she wants to dispute it, I’m sure the voters of New York’s 10th district would be eager to listen.