Pay your interns because they deserve it
The White House still didn’t pay the interns in the press office or anywhere else.
Over 20 years ago, I got an internship in the White House Press Office, and of course it was unpaid. Paid internships were quite rare in Washington, D.C., even though hundreds of interns had been producing work that was just as valuable as paid staff. But after decades of taking advantage of young people, reinforcing economic inequities, fueling nepotism, and literally getting something for nothing, the White House finally announced it would start paying its interns.
While this development might be good news, it could be a lot better.
Unpaid internships are one of Washington, D.C.’s biggest and most hypocritical contradictions. Until recently, unpaid interns were expected to produce major projects that required excessive hours and mental energy. Standard responsibilities include research, budgeting, running errands, writing, answering phones, project management, and notetaking.
One of the most common internship responsibilities is to hold places in line and take notes at high-profile congressional hearings. Naively, my former unpaid colleagues and I did this many times, not realizing that such duties could take up to eight hours. Washington, D.C.-based employers, especially nonprofit organizations, insist that internships are essential to organizational success but not enough to warrant a paycheck.
When I started interning in 1999, my internship program, my internship supervisor, my professors at the University of Iowa, and my parents all told me the same thing: interns who are not paid monetarily will receive other benefits that make the experience worthwhile. They weren’t wrong because my intern class and I did get “paid” with the occasional free lunch, day-old baked goods, leftovers from catered events, participation in high-profile meetings, free appetizers and food at receptions after work, and a monthly Metrocard.
According to my internship program, the most coveted “payment” came in the form of college credit and a recommendation letter on organizational letterhead. Both ended up being true. After receiving my recommendation letter on White House letterhead, I thought I’d have an advantage, but I didn’t. My recommendation letters were form letters that were generic and bland.
None of those goods allowed me to buy food and pay rent, and the same is true for the rest of the nation’s unpaid interns. As for the college credit “payment,” I would have worked a lot less if I’d taken a course with equivalent credit hours.
The glamour of my White House internship wore off pretty fast after the first couple of days. I had to get up at 3:30 a.m., walk several blocks to the Old Executive Office Building because cabs were nonexistent at that hour, and literally cut out and photocopy newspaper clippings from five major national newspapers. Delivering newsclips to the West Wing was supposed to be a treat, and White House staff told us how valuable our work was.
But the White House still didn’t pay the interns in the press office or anywhere else. They didn’t have to. They knew that if we quit, they had literally thousands of other potential candidates to choose from who wouldn’t require pay. Those resumes belong to people whose wealthy parents could subsidize the high cost of living in Washington, D.C.
Work is work, regardless of who completes it, and that contribution deserves fair and equitable pay. However, for decades, those in power got to decide whether one’s labor is worth paying for or not. Ironically, those same individuals would never, ever take a job that had zero pay but the promise of a positive recommendation and leftover soggy sandwiches.
Eventually, I would get a paid internship at a nonprofit organization that required a college degree and previous experience with women’s organizations. It paid the federal minimum wage, which was exactly what I made at the job I had in high school.
Today’s minimum wage in D.C. is $16.10 per hour. White House intern pay will amount to $18.75 an hour, assuming full-time work, the Washington Post reported. It’s an improvement, but not a livable wage.
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