Oregon Democrat Tries To Fix Washington’s Unpaid Internship System

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici says she knows how to fix the inequities in the D.C. internship system.

WASHINGTON — Rep. Suzanne Bonamici says she’s figured out how to thread the needle between the inequities everyone agrees are inherent to D.C.’s unpaid internship system and the fear that forcing interns to be paid will end internships forever.

The Oregon Democrat’s solution, in a nutshell: Make unpaid interns from low-income backgrounds into work-study students, paid through the Pell Grant system.

“I’ve heard about these efforts to say all internships need to be paid. What would happen is the public sector entities that have internships won’t have interns. And it’s about the benefit to the intern, and what they learn from an internship and giving them that work experience that’s going to help them get a job. It’s not like these positions would be replaced with paid positions,” Bonamici told BuzzFeed last week. “So this bill, The Opportunities For Success Act, is designed to make those internships more accessible to low-income students by giving them a grant to get an internship.”

The bill, filed by Bonamici earlier this month, would give $5,000 in new government grants to qualified full-time interns and $2,500 to part-time interns. Grant eligibility and administration would be handled by the financial aid departments at colleges and universities, the people who already handle the Pell Grant system. The federal government is exempt from laws that require college students to pay for credit, so this money would go directly into the pocket of unpaid interns.

Advocates for reform to the internship system point to Bonamici as one of the few members of Congress to focus on unpaid internships. Unions and other groups are attempting to make the unpaid internship a focus this fall, when they hope to force government and non-profit agencies to pay their interns for the work they do. Bonamici, who, like many members of Congress, hosts unpaid interns in her office throughout the year, warned against that change, saying it will close an important door to people looking for a career in Washington.

Internship reform advocates cite both the difficulty of poorer applicants to afford working for free as well as what they see as the exploitation of free labor as reasons for D.C.’s interns to be paid. Bomamici says she takes steps in her office to ensure the unpaid internships she offers are focused on educational opportunities rather than grunt work.

Bomamici said her solution to the inequity problem is both simple and personal.

“I worked in legal aid when I was in college and law school and worked my way through college and law school on a whole combination of grants and work study and student loans,” Bomamici said. “And so, not only did that give me an appreciation for the needs of low-income families and those who are struggling to do better and join the middle class, it also led me to eventually go to law school and graduate with a law degree. And so my work experience is personally relevant, and I thought about how meaningful that was.”

Critics of unpaid internships and D.C.’s internship culture in general say it’s too clubby, giving the leg up to people with connections and money. But advocates of unpaid internships say the barrier to entry for an internship is lower than that of, say, an Ivy League university, making internships an important tool for the disadvantaged. Bonamici doesn’t directly address that specific critique in her legislation, but she does say her bill would make it easier for people without access to the money required to live in one of the nation’s most expensive cities without a paycheck to get a shot at a high-power internship.

Bonamici’s plan, which she just introduced and does not yet have a cost attached, likely faces an uphill climb. She’s calling for new government spending at a time when that’s not very popular, to say the least. But with some Republicans pushing education reform as part of their party’s plan to become proactive when it comes to income inequality in America, Bonamici said her bill is about making education spending more effective.

“I know this is a challenging time to do that [pass new government spending], but when you look at it, we are already investing in our students because we’re already spending money on low-income students with Pell Grants,” she said. “This makes that investment more worthwhile because it will help them get a job when they graduate.”

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