Feeling sorry for the unpaid intern yet?
Times could be a-changing. While a judge has decreed that unpaid internships for Fox Searchlight movies “Black Swan” and “500 Days of Summer” violated minimum wage and overtime laws, a quiet murmuring has begun in Washington about what sort of compensation — if any — an intern deserves.
And Capitol Hill is arguably the epicenter of the D.C. intern world.
My original column followed the piece by Dylan Matthews in the Washington Post’s WonkBlog. Matthews quotes Ross Perlin, the author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy (great title, BTW). Perlin is a fervent disapprover of unpaid internships and the flawed system that supports it. He believes Congress is rife with opportunity for changing the unpaid intern culture, and in an email to CQ Roll Call, he detailed why:
“Congress should lead the way on internships, instead of deliberately exempting itself from fundamental employment laws that protect young people. What kind of message does it send when the House abolishes its paid Page program and comes to increasingly rely on unpaid interns (who are usually older and more experienced than pages would be)? The Hill has one of the highest concentrations of interns anywhere and it’s no exaggeration, as many people in the Beltway told me, that DC would be in trouble without the work of interns. This is a big issue affecting young people, waiting for a champion, waiting for some acknowledgment from our nation’s political leaders.”
So let’s break this down. First, pages are not interns. They don’t work in offices, they are — as Perlin points out — much younger, and they have schoolwork, housing requirements and specified duties that are far different from the typical internship. It is more difficult to get a page spot, as there are 30 page positions that serve 100 senators. (As Perlin references, the House has discontinued its page program). Unlike internships, where there is no limit to the number a member’s office can bring on, Senate offices are limited by how often they can sponsor a page.
Second, internship rules — including compensation — are decided by office, not by a single, overarching policy. This means some Capitol Hill offices pay interns, some require college credit, and others collect all the qualified, unpaid help they can find.
Changing the “unpaid intern” culture might start with changing the way Congress does its job. A congressional office, already facing cuts, must find creative ways to stay productive, follow the news and legislation all while taking time for each constituent’s point of view (and, as anyone who has ever answered the phones on Capitol Hill can attest, considering these viewpoints can take some time).
So has Congress overextended itself? It seems unpaid interns have become the invisible glue holding overworked offices together. Without the additional help, more staff members must take on additional work. Or if more paid staff come aboard, it could mean even smaller salaries for all involved.
Perlin, who has not worked on Capitol Hill, sees unpaid internships as an extension of Congress’ apathy toward issues facing young people in general:
“Unpaid internships on Capitol Hill send the message that members of Congress don’t care about the issues that face young people more broadly. While individual Hill interns may feel it’s a favor or a great opportunity, the larger system is now deeply flawed.”
Deeply flawed, perhaps, but the focus on hiring only people with Capitol Hill experience means that internships — paid or not — will continue to be valued. But the conversation is worth having, not only for the interns, but for the existing staff who rely on interns to help with their work.
“I think the culture is already changing — two years no one was talking about any of this, but now the conversation is in full swing.”
And so it begins.
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