Leave it to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to shake up the system. This time the outspoken representative-elect from New York has shed light on a surprising norm in politics: interns on Capitol Hill are often not paid.
While talking to customers at a restaurant in Washington, D.C., earlier this week, Ocasio-Cortez discovered that interns often have two or three other side hustles in order to supplement their unpaid government internships.
This week I went to dive spot in DC for some late night food. I chatted up the staff.
SEVERAL bartenders, managers, & servers *currently worked in Senate + House offices.*
This is a disgrace. Congress of ALL places should raise MRAs so we can pay staff an actual DC living wage.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) December 3, 2018
Ocasio-Cortez, 29, a former waitress and bartender before rising as a prominent voice in the Women’s Wave during the midterm elections, once again proved that she is making good on her promise to give voice to the underrepresented. This time, the first-time congresswoman publicly announced she will be shattering the status quo and will pay her interns $15 an hour.
Time to walk the walk.
Very few members of Congress actually pay their interns. We will be one of them. https://t.co/BuKCDSai0K
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) December 5, 2018
She called out the “unjust” practices of Republicans who tout fiscal responsibility while employing unpaid interns. But studies show that the issue of employing unpaid interns in the fifth most expensive city in the country is a bipartisan problem — with Democrats the worst offenders. According to a report, “Experience Doesn’t Pay the Bills” by Pay Your Interns, 8 percent of Republican representatives pay their interns, as compared with 3.6 percent of Democratic House representatives.
Regardless, change is needed. “I think what she is doing is making a point that, for Democrats, a lot of them are always talking about a living wage, and we need to pay people $15 an hour. But you’re not paying your interns even a peanut,” says Carlos Mark Vera, the founder of Pay Your Interns, a bi-partisan nonprofit organization advocating for government funding for interns on the Hill.
When he was an intern working for former Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., in 2012, Vera says he worked 60 to 70 hours a week as he juggled the unpaid job, 16 college credits at American University, and a part-time job to make ends meet. “As opposed to enjoying the internship, I was fighting not to fall asleep,” recalls Vera. (Baca did not respond to requests for comment.)
The interns lucky enough to be paid are generally limited to a small stipend of $1,000 to $2,000 for a three to four-month period, according to Pay Your Interns. With the typical rent in D.C. averaging around $2,170 per month, according to Inc. magazine, it’s even more difficult for interns to make ends meet if they don’t already live in the area.
Another troubling observation? As an intern, Vera found that on Capitol Hill “the only ones that looked like me were the janitors.”
So Vera started Pay Your Intern, to advocate against the controversial practice, which he believes is one of the reasons why there’s a lack of diversity in the U.S. government.
“Our goal is to ensure that all the offices are using funds in an equitable way that will allow working-class youth to come here,” Vera says. “Ultimately, it should be the kid that’s willing to work the hardest that should get the internship — not the one that can afford it because mom or dad gave a donation to the members.”
Thanks to the work of Pay Your Interns and other advocacy groups, the Senate now allocates $5 million and the House $8.8 million to funding for paid internships. Although they have the funding, however, the individual congressional offices who determine how to allocate their budgets are not required to pay interns.
Chuck Schumer posted a job *today* hiring for an UNPAID, full-time, press intern
if the Democratic leader in the senate can't pay his own interns, how can Democrats talk about fair pay for anyone? pic.twitter.com/FnUKlq48NA
— Michael Whitney (@michaelwhitney) December 3, 2018
“If you know that’s an issue, then why not fix it, right?” asks Vera. “But no one wants to speak out, for the fear of being blackballed in the world of public service, or there’s a sense of shame.”
Enter Ocasio-Cortez, who has upended D.C. with her candor and her transparency about “That Congresswoman Life” on social platforms like Instagram Stories. Her announcement about paying interns is “powerful,” says Vera, and will put the onus on her colleagues to actually “walk the walk.”
“It’s going to be a litmus test,” he says. “Now if you call yourself someone who is for the working class, but you’re not paying your interns, it’s going to get tougher.”
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