Unpaid congressional internships: bad for students, bad for policy

Summer has officially arrived, and with it an influx of interns has come to the nation’s capital. Many of these young men and women will spend the summer working in congressional offices for no pay. While information on the use of unpaid interns is not available for every congressional office, EPI conducted an informal survey and found that at least three-quarters of all House offices use unpaid interns. More than half of all Senate offices, meanwhile, have unpaid interns, according to a survey by the advocacy group Pay Our Interns.

Congress is not alone in its practice of offering unpaid internships—in fact, far from it. Unpaid internships are common in every sector, and have come to be considered a necessary prerequisite for getting a job—despite the fact that most unpaid internships are actually against the law. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)—the foundation of modern labor law in the United States—requires that anyone doing work for an employer, including interns, be paid at least the minimum wage.

The Department of Labor (DOL) is tasked with enforcing the FLSA and has developed a six-point test to determine whether an internship must be paid as employment covered by the FLSA or is, instead, training or education. In recent years, in a number of high-profile cases courts have upheld and applied the DOL’s test, and determined that an employer had violated the FLSA when it failed to pay its interns for their work. While Congress is exempted from the laws protecting interns, it sets a powerful example by not paying its interns, and the practice has a far-reaching impact on society as well as public policy.

Nothing is more fundamental than the requirement that employers pay a fair wage for an honest day of work. However, for many young graduates interning this summer, their first employment experience will be working for no pay. Furthermore, because most workplace protections are extended based on “employee” status, unpaid interns will spend the summer working in a legal void if they experience sexual harassment or other conduct that would be prohibited if they were paid employees. Whatever else these young men and women learn, they will learn a powerful lesson about our nation’s system of workplace protections—that we need greater enforcement and tougher penalties for employers that exploit their workforce.

This is where the problem of Congress’ practice of unpaid internships comes into focus. Offering unpaid internships limits opportunities for young people whose families cannot afford to finance the experience, and has policy implications that contribute to the institutionalization of socioeconomic disparities. Often, congressional internships lead to employment in a congressional office. Staff exert influence over policy matters—ensuring that policy staff represent diverse viewpoints and socioeconomic perspectives is critical to promoting policy that serves the interests of majority of Americans.

Consider the American Health Care Act (AHCA), which the Senate is set to consider next week. The House version of the bill included massive cuts to Medicaid, the nation’s public health insurance program for low-income children, adults, seniors, and people with disabilities. 1-in-5 Americans receive health care coverage through Medicaid. Despite the wide reach of the program, it is clear that policymakers in the Republican-controlled Congress do not appreciate its vital importance. Perhaps if more of their policy staff had direct experience with programs like Medicaid, representatives would have a different perspective.

The importance of promoting congressional internship opportunities to young people with diverse background and experiences was recently highlighted in an editorial co-authored by House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Representative Fred Upton (R-Mich.). Representatives Hoyer and Upton discussed the “College to Congress” program which provides needs-based scholarships to Pell-Grant students so that they can participate in congressional internships that are traditionally unpaid.

Providing financing for internships not only makes them available to less well-off students, it also makes internships more valuable to any student who takes one. The differences in employment outcomes following paid and unpaid internships are striking. A survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that college graduates who had paid internships were more likely to get a job offer, and their salary offers were higher than those received by graduates who had unpaid internships.

Unpaid internships are also a drag on the economy. Students already burdened with ever-increasing student loan debt are forced to cut back their consumption of goods and services in order to participate in unpaid work that they are told is necessary for them to be competitive in the labor market. Even more troubling, unpaid internships undermine the central premise of our nation’s labor and employment law: that you have a right to be paid for your labor. Unpaid work is exploitation. Congress should set an example in this area. This is not just a matter of fairness but a way of ensuring full democratic participation.