By Office of Senator Kamala Harris [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

June 28, 2018; New York Times

Reading news stories like this makes you want to check the publication date. Only just now, it seems, the United States Senate has noticed that its internship program, which is unpaid, might be unfairly—and with predictable results—privileging the well off. Readers will remember this issue surfacing five years ago among nonprofits, at the UN, and in corporate America, which led NPQ to look across sectors at the consequences of the practice. At that time, most of us got the memo that by not paying interns, we were effectively providing greater opportunities and access to employment to those who didn’t need the money, but perhaps the US Congress didn’t get the message. In fact, the House of Representatives used to have a budget for paying interns for two months at a time, but that 20-year-old program was eliminated in 1994. The Senate has never had a compensation program.

In any case, the Senate has now made an effort to address this sure path to structured-in inequity by allocating $5 million to compensate interns. This works out to around $50,000 per Senate office. The measure must still be approved by the House to take effect in October. In the meantime, some hope that the House might also get a clue.

In a related story, a 2015 reckoning found that 93 percent of top Senate staff members, who probably need to know the things that interns in Congress learn, were white. Of course, Congress is not alone in this narrowing of access to the halls of power. The National Association of Colleges and Employers found that nearly half of all internships are unpaid, and most are contained within government and nonprofits. For-profit companies, on the other hand, are constrained by the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The Congressional Accountability Act excludes interns from the required benefits—including wages—afforded government employees. An advocacy organization called Pay Our Interns found that around half of Republican senators compensated interns, as compared to a third of Democratic Senators. In the House, only eight percent of Republican representatives and four percent of Democrats paid for their interns. Meanwhile, DC is ranked among the top ten most expensive places to live in the country.

But, apparently Congress thinks of itself as a market in this regard: “For the longest time, it’s been understood that with Congress and other very selective internships, they won’t have to worry about compensating because they’ll be flooded with applications,” said David Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School who is an expert on the intern economy.—Ruth McCambridge