Pay your interns because they deserve it

Over 20 years ago, I got an internship at the White House Press Office, and of course, it was unpaid. Paid internships were fairly rare in Washington, DC, although hundreds of interns had produced work that was just as valuable as the paid staff. But after decades of taking advantage of young people, reinforce economic inequalitiesfueling nepotism and literally getting something for nothing, the White House finally announcement he would start paying his interns.

While this development may be good news, it could be much better.

Unpaid internships are one of the biggest and most hypocritical in Washington, D.C. contradictory. Until recently, unpaid interns were expected to complete large projects that required excessive hours and mental energy. Standard responsibilities include research, budgeting, errands, writing, answering phones, project management, and note taking.

One of the most common internship responsibilities is standing in line and taking notes at high-profile congressional hearings. Naively, my former unpaid co-workers and I did this several times, not realizing that such tasks could take up to eight hours. Washington, D.C.-based employers, especially nonprofits, insist that internships are essential to the success of the organization but not enough to justify a salary.

When I started my internship 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 unpaid will receive other benefits that will make the experience worthwhile. They weren’t wrong because my class of trainees and I were “paid” with the occasional free lunch, day-old baked goods, leftovers from catered events, attendance at high-level meetings , free appetizers and food at after-work parties, and a monthly Metrocard.

According to my internship program, the most coveted “payment” came in the form of college credits and a letter of recommendation on organization letterhead. Both ended up being true. After I received my letter of recommendation on White House letterhead, I thought I would have an advantage, but I didn’t. My letters of recommendation were generic, bland standard letters.

None of these assets allowed me to buy food and pay rent, and the same goes for the rest of the unpaid interns in the country. As for the “payment” of university credits, I would have worked much less if I had taken a course with equivalent credit hours.

The glamor of my internship at the White House wore off pretty quickly after the first few days. I had to get up at 3:30 a.m., walk several blocks to the old executive office building because taxis were non-existent at that time, and literally cut out and photocopy newspaper clippings from five major national newspapers . Delivering news clips 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 hasn’t paid interns at the press office or elsewhere. They didn’t have to. They knew that if we left, they would have literally thousands of other potential candidates to choose from who didn’t need to be paid. These resumes belong to people whose rich parents could subsidize the high cost of living in Washington, D.C.

A job is a job no matter who does it, and that contribution deserves fair and equitable compensation. However, for decades those in power had to decide whether his work was worth paying or not. Ironically, these same people would never, ever accept a job that had no pay but the promise of a positive recommendation and leftover soggy sandwiches.

Eventually, I would get a paid internship at a nonprofit that required a college degree and previous experience with women’s organizations. He was paying federal minimum wage, which was exactly what I was making at the job I had in high school.

Today’s minimum wage in DC is $16.10 an hour. White House intern pay will be $18.75 per hour, assuming full-time work, the Washington Post reported. It’s an improvement, but not a living wage.


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