Internships, while always a hot topic for college students, has risen to prominence in the news cycle as of late. In early 2018, the Department of Labor changed their policy surrounding unpaid internships in for-profit companies. More recently, congressional funds were set aside for the 2019 fiscal year to allow paid internships in the House and Senate. Just last week, incoming freshman congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pledged to pay her interns $15 per hour.
Ignoring the controversy surrounding the frequently discussed $15 per hour figure, Ocasio-Cortez and many others have jumped into the paid internship discussion and raised significant questions about the ethics of companies and the government not paying their interns.
With claims that unpaid internships compensate these workers in experience, the clear question is: is the experience enough? I would argue that it is not. Further, the disadvantages posed by unpaid internships far outweigh the so-called benefits. I would venture to argue that both the companies and the interns derive benefit from paid internships.
First, a few fast facts about the current practices surrounding internships:
51% of Senate Republicans pay their interns as opposed to 32% of Senate Democrats, per a 2017 congressional report from advocacy group Pay Our Interns.
The same report notes that the trend is far more dismal in the House. 8% of House Republicans offer compensated internships, while just over 3.5% do the same.
A 2013 study found that nearly half of all internships are unpaid, the majority of those in governmental and nonprofit sectors.
Internships can potentially cost around $6,000 (specifically for out-of-state congressional interns).
The privilege issue
Unpaid internships inherently favor those who can afford to work without compensation, like those from a higher socioeconomic background. In doing this, companies restrict their pool of applicants, forgoing viable candidates who simply do not have the financial means to live without income. The inability to sustain that lifestyle does not diminish a potential intern’s capacity to perform in his or her role. Yet that is exactly what such a practice insinuates.
Unpaid interns from disadvantaged backgrounds have become more outspoken on such an issue, noting the extreme hours they are required to work at second – sometimes third – jobs in order to maintain a livelihood. Some confess that they work upwards of fourteen hour days to accommodate the income disparity. This is not counting the time they set aside for their academic studies.
The moral and legal case
Not only do unpaid internships inherently favor those from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, therefore limiting the quality of applicants, but it indicates that the intern’s work is not worthwhile enough to be compensated. While recent adjustments to internship laws have attempted to change this, the sentiment still rings true.
It is difficult for an intern to learn – as such a position is designed to do – without consistently performing tasks of benefit to the company or organization for which the intern is working. The nature of such a relationship is to acquire the necessary skills and training to operate at higher roles within the field with a hands-on approach. Yet, the law surrounding unpaid internships inhibits this process. The law says that an unpaid internship is permissible so long as the intern derives more benefit from the experience than the company. But such a requirement is difficult to quantify and nearly impossible to achieve, as, to truly grasp the demands of the job, shouldn’t the intern perform work that is simultaneously – and arguably, equally – of value for the intern and the company?
It is an awkward and troublesome legal demand, and it leaves the intern in a confusing position. An internship is supposed to be a learning-while-working experience. If the type of work is barred by the constraints of the law, the learning, too, is limited.
By contrast, paid internships eliminate this tightrope walk by ensuring that interns can perform significant tasks that more accurately and fully reflect the requirements of their field. Further, payment affirms the value of the position. It solidifies the hope the intern has in drawing real-life application from the position.
The current conversation
A bipartisan effort has emerged in Congress to pay interns on Capitol Hill. Spearheaded by former D.C. interns themselves, these efforts have been well-received by Congress in recent months. Nonprofit advocacy group Pay Our Interns worked alongside members of Congress to amplify the need to pay interns on the basis of evening the playing field and protecting all interns, and was successful in their efforts. This organization hopes that changes to congressional internships will set the stage for developments in the for-profit sector.