Organization Trends

The Unpaid Internship: An American Epidemic


“If America runs on Dunkin’ Donuts, D.C. runs on unpaid internships,” says Carlos Mark Vera, the founder and executive director of Pay Our Interns, a newly minted, bipartisan nonprofit based in Washington, D.C that advocates for paid internships within the public and private sector.

Celebrating its recent one-year anniversary, Pay Our Interns began as a response to an obstacle Vera himself faced during his time in college. As a freshman at American University in Washington, D.C., Vera obtained a coveted “Hill Internship,” interning for a Congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives. Detailing his experience, Vera writes:

I ended up interning 25 hours a week, working 20 hours at my paid job, and taking 16 credits. I was only 17 years old, and I was fighting the urge to fall asleep at my desk because I was getting so little sleep.

Interning in Congress is largely considered a rite of passage for university students seeking a future in the political field, but, as Vera’s own experience shows, it comes at a hefty price. Congressional internships are generally unpaid, and city life doesn’t come cheap. Between rent, transportation, food, and professional clothing, interning on Capitol Hill just for a summer can cost students upwards of $6,000.

This is the glass ceiling facing many seeking to enter the job market. Congressional internships serve as a pipeline to staffer positions, making the Hill one of the few places where being hired to a full-time position is virtually impossible without prior congressional intern experience. Interns who lack the money to foot the (hefty) bill interning for free entails, will likely find themselves unable to pursue a future career in congressional politics.

Internships serve as important introductions in many fields. Studies indicate that college students with prior internship experience are 51.7 percent more likely to receive a job offer by graduation, while only 17 percent of students who did not intern during college will receive an offer. Among those who do intern during college, though, struggling financially has become a discouraging reality. 77 percent of students will end up working a second job to cover living expenses during their internships – a practice that detracts from their studies and the internship itself.

Pay Our Interns argues that requiring interns to work for free decreases diversity, socioeconomic and otherwise.

Pay Our Interns seeks to combat this barrier for low-income students by encouraging companies and organizations to provide paid internships—starting on Capitol Hill. In June 2017, Pay Our Interns rolled out a report detailing the importance of internships in the contemporary job market, providing the first ever comprehensive list of senators and representatives who offer paid internships.

The findings are startling. In the U.S. Senate, 51 percent of Republicans pay their interns, while only 31 percent of Democrats do. The rates in the House of Representatives are even worse—only 8 percent of Republicans and 3.6 percent of Democrats offer paid internships.

While no institutional or budgetary differences exist that might explain why Republicans offer more paid internships than their Democratic counterparts, Vera has a theory:

People say that Democrats like to say, ‘Well, you know, you’re getting paid with knowing that you’re making the world a better place,’ right? While Republicans are under no illusions of that, and believe that you should get paid for your work.

For the political party that claims to fight for workers’ rights, though, not paying interns seems ironic.

Independent research conducted by the Employment Policies Institute found that 95 percent of the House and Senate sponsors and co-sponsors of the Raise the Wage Act of 2017, which would raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15, hire unpaid interns. Ten of the co-sponsors offered interns a stipend, and only one—the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT)—paid interns an hourly wage.

Outreach Director for Pay Our Interns, Trevor Smith, says its disingenuous to push for a minimum wage hike while paying interns to work for freenothing:

If someone is for the ‘Fight for $15’ but doesn’t pay their interns, we see that as someone that’s not truly invested in helping lower-income people. If they campaign on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, but then don’t pay their interns behind peoples’ backs, I would call it phony.

Pay Our Interns mainly attributes the lack of paid internships in Congress, on both sides to a hiring cap. Each representative is limited to 18 paid positions and 4 additional positions on his or her staff. With multiple offices in their home district as well as their D.C. office, many members reach the paid employee cap and are unable to pay interns.

While offering a stipend does circumvent this, Pay Our Interns wants to raise the hiring cap, as well as reinstate a paid internship program similar to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Congressional Intern Program, which ran from 1973-1994. The program allowed for two-month paid internships in every House office.

Pay Our Interns stands by its bipartisan status. In 2016, the group reached out to the presidential campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to urge them to support paid internships. Vera said:

What’s one thing that Mike Lee and Bernie Sanders have in common? They both pay their interns. And, if you think about it, both of these people view government way differently; yet, they pay their interns…. That’s why I think this is a bipartisan issue and, thus, we are not just going with one party.

The future of Pay Our Interns seems bright. In addition to successfully lobbying politicians and organizations to create paid internship programs, Pay Our Interns is currently working on creating a “scorecard” system for rating organizations’ internship programs in the hopes of making information more accessible and incentivizing organizations to make programs more fair.