Why Won’t Obama Pay His Interns?

A former marriage equality advocate turns his attention to what he calls the Obama administration’s greatest hypocrisy: pushing for a higher minimum wage while relying on unpaid interns. And he’s got help from some powerful White House allies.

John Gara/BuzzFeed

WASHINGTON — At some point in the near future, an intern could be standing over a hot photocopier spitting out White House talking points on the president’s campaign to raise the minimum wage — and getting paid exactly $0.00 per hour to do so.

To Mikey Franklin, the man trying to blow up Washington’s unpaid intern culture, the scene is nothing short of ridiculous.

“We are not impressed,” Franklin said. “The White House is fighting for a raise in the minimum wage while still taking on, at any one time, dozens of staff at $7.25 below the minimum wage.”

In the coming weeks, Franklin and elements of the labor movement plan to launch the Fair Pay Campaign, a grassroots lobbying effort aimed at fundamentally upending the way internships work in Washington. And they’re starting by calling on President Obama to provide paychecks to the legions of interns that help run his White House.

No one knows for sure how many interns there are in the federal government, but advocates estimate the number at around 20,000 to 30,000 each summer, the vast majority of whom don’t receive paychecks. While rules are changing to require most of the private sector to pay everyone who does work for them, special loopholes allow the federal government to maintain a massive, unpaid intern workforce that fills every corner of government and virtually every congressional office. And while Washington’s annual “intern season” is the subject of snickering among the city’s full-time political class, most will acknowledge that D.C. institutions heavily rely on the free labor.

Pay-the-interns advocates say the fundamental unfairness in the current system transcends the lack of a weekly paycheck. In Washington, internships function as a method of funneling ambitious young go-getters into full-time jobs: By requiring that applicants be willing to work without pay, the argument goes, the government has effectively built a socio-economic glass ceiling that prevents people from poor and working-class families from taking advantage. Supporters of unpaid internships in Washington say they are educational opportunities as good as if not better than a semester on a college campus.

Fair Pay plans to start its campaign to pressure the White House around Labor Day, eventually expanding it to cover the rest of the federal government and nonprofit sector in D.C. Franklin says the group will conduct research, publish studies, and pursue other efforts aimed at educating the public and prompting legislation on Capitol Hill. The nascent effort is still coming together, but the early focus will be on forcing internships in Washington to change by organizing students not to take unpaid internships and favor paid internships instead. It’s a heavy lift in a city where prestige is everything and unpaid internships are often among the most prestigious, but Franklin said that by using organizing techniques gleaned from the labor movement, they can slowly change the system.

But in the age of sequestration and deficit-slashing fervor, calling on the federal government to spend money paying workers it doesn’t pay now is a tough sell. Advocates say it’s a fight worth taking on — and they point to dozens of anecdotes and stories as proof.

Interns living in Washington, one of America’s most expensive cities, told BuzzFeed they wouldn’t be able to do it without serious financial help from the home front.

One intern working in the executive branch on foreign policy and law-related issues said he pays his bills “through a mix of financial aid and parental support.” (He asked to remain anonymous in case his candor would upset his bosses.) The intern, a 24-year-old third-year law student at UCLA — a school that offers a small stipend to students with public service internships — says he’s enjoying his time in D.C. thanks in large part to checks from his parents.

“If one was living strictly on the stipend, you’d be living not so nicely in D.C. and eating not so nicely,” he said.

What do D.C. interns do? Experts say a lot of it is the kind of mind-numbing grunt work you’d expect. But not all of it. Ross Eisenbrey, a scholar at the union-backed Economic Policy Institute think tank in Washington, has been studying D.C. internships for years. On the Hill, they include a lot of the annoying stuff no one else wants to do. But they also include jobs people used to be paid to do.

“Most of what the interns end up doing is just plain work. Nobody is supervising them except maybe another intern, and they end up doing a lot of work that used to be done by a paid clerk. Writing letters, answering the mail, preparing charts. Doing real research,” he said. “It isn’t all scut work, some of it really important intellectual work.”

The executive branch intern agreed.

“As an intern with the government, you’re going to be able to get your hands on a lot [of] higher-profile issues and a lot more substantive work than you’d be doing in the private sector,” he said. “And the networking opportunities, especially with the federal government and being in Washington, where there’s such a concentration of federal agencies, is invaluable from my perspective.”

Losing that access isn’t worth winning the war over paychecks, the intern said.

“In an ideal world, everyone would be paid. But if you’re in a position to do an unpaid internship, you do it,” he said. “If it came down through the courts or whatever that the government had to start paying interns, you’d see a severe reduction in the number of internships available. Maybe there would be no internships available in some agencies. And I think that would have a really negative impact on sort of generating the next cadre of government leaders.”

“And so if it has to be that interns don’t get paid, then so be it,” he said.

Franklin himself could easily be a top-flight D.C. intern. Though he fits most of the profile to a T — early twenties, smart, ambitious, political nerd — he also has more obligations and experience than many of the fresh-faced students who arrive on Washington’s doorstep every summer. He’s married, to a school teacher, and he has a résumé packed with political experience, including organizing for the Labour Party in his native Britain, interning for Howard Dean’s Democracy For America, and a gig on the staff of Equality Maryland, which successfully helped bring same-sex marriage to the state.

After that job ended, Franklin looked for work in D.C. but everyone told him the same thing: You’ve got to work for free in this town before you can work for money. Shortly thereafter, the Fair Pay Campaign was born.

“I was thinking about maybe going for a job on the Hill or with the government. And essentially everyone said, ‘You can’t go straight to a job; you’ve got to start as an unpaid intern.’ And I said, ‘I can’t afford to do that. I can’t afford not to eat and not live anywhere,’” he said.

In addition to pressuring the government to pay interns, Fair Pay will hire organizers to work on college campuses and push applicants to seek only internships that pay. At the same time, the group plans to help advertise nonprofit and federal internships that pay, borrowing a technique from the LGBT rights movement.

“The same way that if you’re very LGBT-friendly, the Human Rights Campaign will accredit you and you can put the little equal sign on your recruitment page, we’re going to do the same thing,” he said. “In addition to criticizing organizations that don’t pay their interns, we’re going to celebrate the ones that do.”

Fair Pay is backed by private donors and union money, though Franklin declined to list his backers by name. Focused on the thousands of Washington internships in the government and nonprofit sector, Fair Pay brings a national debate over internships in the private sector to the Beltway. It’s a fight the interns have been winning lately: Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated labor laws by not paying interns on the production of Black Swan. The intern behind that suit, 43-year-old Eric Glatt, is a Georgetown law student and therefore well-versed in the ways of the Washington internship. He’s considering a seat on the board of Fair Pay and the fight for paying government interns is a fight Americans should care about.

“This is the people’s business. This is the work that people have asked the government to do through the processes of voting and the government we have in place. And I think it’s absolutely unconscionable to have the people’s work being done with a significant staff of volunteers who basically now internalize a kind of privilege, a class privilege,” he said. “Why should the prestige of a White House internship be preserved for a small sliver of society? it’s just absolutely wrong.”

Weaning Washington off unpaid interns “will be an uphill battle,” Glatt said. “But it’s possible to make a really strong case.”

A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

On its website, the White House makes no bones about the rigors of its highly prestigious intern program: Applicants should be prepared to work 40 hours a week or more, and to do it for nothing more than a résumé line. The White House FAQ explains that interns are expected to be on the job “at least Monday-Friday, 9:00 AM - 6:00 PM.”

As for housing, food, and a paycheck in one of the world’s most expensive cities? White House interns are on their own — and they’d better be careful where their money comes from.

“White House Internships are unpaid positions,” the site reads. “Any outside income, funding or housing assistance received as a White House intern must be pre-approved by the Office of the White House Counsel.”

This kind of thing makes Franklin and his supporters furious. But one former White House intern, who’s worked as a leader and coordinator of D.C. internship programs for 15 years, says the advocates for paying White House and other federal interns are missing the point. Eric Woodard interned in the Clinton White House and then went to work for Hillary Clinton. (He’s no longer part of her team.) Woodard is the author of two books on internships and a passionate advocate for keeping unpaid internships in Washington just the way they are. His argument is simple: Internships are some of the best educational opportunities around, and making them more expensive will make them go away.

“What’s nice about it is you have, what, 30,000 or so students a summer — and there’s even some in the fall or spring — come to Washington, and they’re learning and they’re engaging in public service. But the main thing is they’re learning,” Woodard said. “And the lessons they learn, I would argue, are priceless.”

“A lot” of members of Congress used to be interns, Woodard said. Other leaders in the government did too. Woodard said that proves his point that an unpaid internship is actually teaching people the ins and outs of the capital. A proper internship, he said, should involve working with a mentor to learn about how the government functions. The intern-season jokes prove that what interns are doing are not “jobs” in the classic sense.

“If that intern goes away, as most interns do, in August, what happens to the organization?” he said. “I look at Washington, it still functions when all these summer interns we see roaming around go away. That’s evidence right there that [these interns] are not displacing anyone, they’re here to learn. And that’s what the government should be doing.”

Woodard recognized the criticism that unpaid internships are essentially pathways for the rich and powerful toward the halls of wealth and power, but he said trying to survive an unpaid internship in Washington is really no different than the struggle faced by the underprivileged at an Ivy League school, for example. In the case of the ultra-prestigious White House internship, a poor student would get more bang for his or her limited buck on the White House grounds than on the campus of an expensive four-year school, he said.

“A kid from an underserved community might not be able to get into Harvard,” he said. “But he can sure get a White House internship or a Department of Energy internship or whatever. And more than that, they don’t have to pay tuition for it.”

The push to pay for internships isn’t coming from underserved communities, as far as Woodard sees it.

“It seems to me that a lot of people who are crying havoc about how it’s discriminatory, they all look alike,” he said, before making a not-so-veiled reference to Glatt. “It’s not any of the people who might be victims, it’s people who are going to Georgetown Law. You know, these are people — they’re fine.”

What happens if the advocates succeed in getting Washington’s interns paid? “The vast majority of these opportunities would go away,” Woodard said.

“Look, I am very sympathetic to labor, obviously. I fully support people’s right to have a living wage, but I still come back to the point that it’s not a labor issue. This is about education,” he said. “You don’t have labor in classrooms, defending students because they’re getting too many papers assigned. And that’s what this is. Nobody’s forcing anybody to do an internship.”

In his first term, Obama made some fundamental changes to the way the federal government handles interns, eliminating a Clinton-era program critics in the labor movement said allowed federal agencies to circumvent hiring rules by essentially hiring anyone at anytime to be “an intern,” a catchall take on the traditional idea of internships that led to more than 100,000 workers coming into government over the course of the program’s life. Obama replaced the program with one that requires interns to be accepted while they are students or within two years of graduating.

“There’s really very little to distinguish them on the surface from private sector or nonprofit internships, except that Congress granted itself a special exemption from paying its interns and the law surrounding interns in other agencies is somewhat unclear,” said Ross Perlin, author of the 2012 book Intern Nation. Intern rules aren’t set across federal agencies, meaning applicants can’t be sure exactly what to expect.

“Just as there are companies that run ethical, paid, training-oriented internships and companies that don’t, there are also parts of the government that do a good job and other parts that don’t,” Perlin said. “It varies greatly.”

Glatt, Franklin, and Perlin aren’t the first to take on the federal government’s intern addiction. The Campaign for America’s Future, a left-leaning advocacy group based in Washington, has about 8,000 signatures on its online petition calling for the White House to pay its interns.

“We see this in the context of our larger push to raise wages and improve standards for all workers,” CFAF’s blog editor Isaiah Poole said.

Supporters of unpaid internship programs say that without them, Washington won’t be able to get as much done. Some say forcing interns to be paid in the public sector will eliminate internships altogether, forcing agencies and nonprofits to hire full-time staffers rather than offer interested people the chance to sample various jobs with temporary programs. Franklin has heard the criticisms, but says they don’t address the underlying unfairness that internships as they currently stand in Washington bring.

“If these interns are so crucial to the running of Washington, then why don’t they deserve a salary?” he said.

Still, Franklin recognizes it’s not easy to sell paying interns in a city used to free labor.

“I’m pissing off quite a lot of my friends,” he said. “We’re not a progressive organization per se; we’re not associated with the progressive movement and we’re certainly not partisan. But I came up in the progressive movement. None of my friends don’t support our campaign, but lots of them say they can’t support us publicly because their employer has unpaid interns or they themselves have unpaid interns. So, yeah, we are fighting a culture that’s deeply ingrained.”

Check out more articles on BuzzFeed.com!

Facebook Conversations
          
    More News
    Now Buzzing