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The White House internship is now paid. But over a third of all interns still work for free

June 6, 2022, 5:26 PM UTC

Last Thursday, the Biden-Harris administration announced the White House will start paying interns this fall for the first time in the history of the program. Interns will receive a $750 weekly stipend, Fortune reported.

The decision, geared at helping “remove barriers to equal opportunity” for low-income people who would like to pursue careers in politics, put the White House on one side of a decades-long debate over the merits of unpaid internships. 

It’s partly the result of a two-year campaign by Pay Our Interns, an organization aimed toward ensuring paid internships in all sectors. The organization first targeted Congress back in 2017, which began paying its interns two years later.

“We started with Congress because, up until 2017, they were the largest employer of unpaid interns—something like 10,000 interns a year,” says Pay Our Interns cofounder Carlos Mark Vera, a former unpaid White House and Congress intern. He was compelled to found the organization after one of his mentees revealed he’d spent his grocery money on dry cleaning for his Congressional internship. “I thought, ‘Things don’t have to be this way; we can reimagine it.’”

Vera, who comes from a working-class background and struggled to support himself during his summers in Washington D.C., calls paid internships a moral necessity—and a no-brainer.

“I saw my classmates, mostly people of color, get screwed over because they didn’t have internships in their field,” he says. “That’s because, while they were in school, they were servers, bartenders, or cashiers. A lot of places don’t deem that professional.” 

Vera’s classmates needed those kinds of paying gigs in order to fund their tuition and expenses, but looking for full-time jobs was more of an uphill battle without a list of so-called right job experiences.

There still aren’t enough paid interns

When internships offer an hourly wage, more candidates can take advantage of them—especially low-income students who might otherwise not be able to afford to work for free. A National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) survey found that the average paid summer intern in 2020 made $20.76 per hour, the highest pay ever measured. White House interns will now make a maximum $21.42 per hour. 

But as the summer intern season begins, getting paid at all is far from guaranteed. The Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin–Madison estimates that of the 3.28 million interns in the U.S., about 1 million are not paid for their work. The research center says anywhere between 31% and 58% of internships don’t pay at all. 

“Paid interns are more productive because they can just focus on their job and not worry about paying bills,” Vera says. “That helps with retention, and develops a pipeline where interns will be much more loyal.”

But it’s also important as executives try to diversify their ranks. When companies don’t pay interns working in the country’s most expensive cities, like D.C., New York, and San Francisco, they are effectively ensuring only a select few can afford to take those roles. 

As a result, there’s “a broken pipeline system,” Vera says. The cracks in the system came mostly to light a decade ago.

In 2011, two unpaid interns who worked on the set of the Fox Searchlight film Black Swan sued the production company for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act. A judge ruled in their favor, saying “Searchlight received the benefits of [the interns’] unpaid work, which otherwise would have required paid employees.” 

Five years later, the interns and Searchlight eventually reached a landmark settlement. But the scene was set. Since then, unpaid interns have sued companies including NBCUniversal, Viacom, and Condé Nast. In 2013, Condé Nast paid nearly $6 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by 7,500 former interns; it only revived its internship program—this time, paid—in 2021. 

“We’re in a much better place now than we were 10 years ago,” Vera says. “But we’re still not where we need to be.”

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