Aside from the hypocrisy of advocating for fair wages while paying some of your workers nothing, the practice of exclusively offering unpaid internships blocks out an entire strata of students and young people from pursuing the congressional internship positions.
As the Winter Semester comes to an end, hundreds of University of Michigan students will use their time away from school to pursue internships all over the country. These internships will require the committed time and diligent effort of the students, which is why it is concerning to find that according to a U-M Summer Research Survey, one-third of these U-M student interns are unpaid. Under The Fair Labor Standards Act, internships in the “for-profit” private sector must offer at least the minimum wage, unless they meet the following criteria:
- The internship is similar to the training received in an educational environment
- The intern benefits from the experience
- The intern does not replace or displace other employees
- The employer attains no benefit from employing the intern
- The intern is not entitled to a job at the end of the internship and
- The intern and employer understand that the internship doesn’t entail a wage
With such a threshold for businesses to reach in order to legally enjoy uncompensated labor, it makes sense that there are more paid internships than unpaid. However, for those seeking a career path in government and public service, the options for compensated internships are far more limited. As is typical for the U.S. Congress, they have legislated rules and regulations that they themselves are exempt from. These exemptions come in the form of the Congressional Accountability Act, which permits Congressmen to have unpaid interns. As a result, sixty-five percent of U.S. senators offer unpaid internships, in return for the time and hard-work of the aspiring youth of our country.
Interns are expected to afford the expenses of living in Washington D.C. for the summer while receiving no pay. This has a self-selecting effect in which only those that are wealthy enough to make this sacrifice, or fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to cover the expenses, are able to pursue the invaluable opportunity of working under the mentorship of a U.S. congressman.
Michigan’s own U.S. senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, and U.S. House Rep Debbie Dingell (representing the 12th congressional district of Washtenaw and Wayne County) are included among those that do not pay their interns. This is especially concerning as these congressmen align with a platform that claims to champion greater economic equality, fair wages, and worker rights. The practice of using unpaid labor is in direct conflict with these very principles. It is hard to accept the excuse that the internships exist for the “purpose of furthering educational opportunities” or to “provide valuable insight into our government and unique public service opportunities” when these congressmen rely on the full-time work of the internships to carry out their office operations. The work and investment committed, and education received by these congressional interns, does not differ from the same level of work and skills received by an intern in the private sector. This leads me to believe that perhaps the congressmen are only responding to the same legislation that they advocate for. If the work of a congressional intern is less than the value of the minimum wage, then it only makes sense to compensate them at a lower pay rate. In the case of the congressional intern, they instead have to be compensated with “valuable experience”, rather than a lower wage.
Aside from the hypocrisy of advocating for fair wages while paying some of your workers nothing, the practice of exclusively offering unpaid internships blocks out an entire strata of students and young people from pursuing the congressional internship positions. Interns are expected to afford the expenses of living in Washington D.C. for the summer while receiving no pay. This has a self-selecting effect in which only those that are wealthy enough to make this sacrifice, or fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to cover the expenses, are able to pursue the invaluable opportunity of working under the mentorship of a U.S. congressman. How is this a practice that promotes equal opportunity, or decreases economic stratification?
Luckily for Stabenow, Peters, and Dingell, there is already some precedent for them to pay their interns. Thirty-five senators compensate their interns, with eleven of those being their fellow Democrats. Senator and current Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, compensates his interns with a wage of $12 an hour–though one wonders why it isn’t $15. Although the DNC and the White House only offer unpaid internship positions, institutions like the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for fair wages and worker’s rights, and Democracy for America, a progressive activist organization, compensate their interns with a wage as a matter of policy.
With these instances in mind, I urge Stabenow, Peters and Dingell to become more aligned with their own principles by compensating their interns. They should strive to set an example for other government officials and business leaders to aspire to: to have both consistency in advocacy and in action. Only then can one attain the legitimacy to lead with conviction and purpose.