Interns for Congress usually aren't paid.

How Congress gets away with not paying its interns

It doesn’t pay to work for Elizabeth Warren.

The senator, who most recently made the news for backing a student loan debt refinancing bill and has advocated for a $22-an-hour minimum wage, pays her interns a lot less — $22 less, in fact. They do their work in her offices of Springfield, Boston, and Washington completely for free.

Several news articles have been written about the need to abolish unpaid internships, which actually makes college students less employable, according to Forbes. And in a story published in The Atlantic last month, one writer found that barely a third of U.S. Senators pay the college-aged interns who staff their various offices.

Some interns luck out

Mike Karney, who interned for Warren’s D.C. office in the summer of 2013, was able to take the internship because he was provided a stipend through his university, Salem State. Others aren’t so lucky. Housing in D.C. is expensive and paying for public transport, rent, and food means college-aged students like David Marr, who interned for a Republican congressman in 2012, cannot afford to work on the Hill without other income or financial aid.

“I just got connections and networking out of it,” says Marr, who was not paid for his internship.

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Being an intern also means being held on a tight leash. Congress members don’t let interns speak with the press. Debt.com tried, but the interns themselves clammed up.

Ross Eisnebrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute and former legislative director in the U.S. House of Representatives, said Congress should work harder to ensure students from all backgrounds are able to pursue internships in D.C.

“The people who can’t afford to do that are from working-class families or poor families who absolutely have to have a paying job,” Eisenbrey says. “It reinforces the elitism of the Senate and of the government.”

Eisenbrey said there’s a “completely different treatment” of how the government and the private sector view unpaid internships. Internships in the private sector that don’t meet a certain list of requirements are illegal. But in Congress, which has exempted itself from the Fair Labor Standards Act, unpaid internships have become the norm.

Hitting the big time

Working for a congressman or senator is no small-time internship. In Warren’s office, Karney answered phones, wrote constituent mail, led visitors on tours of the Capitol, and appeared at briefings to take notes for the senator. Others who interned for her campaign were also unpaid, although they dedicated anywhere from 15 to 40 hours a week to get the senator elected.

LaDonna Lusher, a lawyer with the firm Virginia & Ambinder in New York City, said the federal government should set an example for for-profit corporations by paying their interns. While her firm specializes in prosecuting private-sector industries like Sony, Donna Karan, and Warner Music Group, she said that her firm represents “interns who allege that they were doing substantive work that benefited their employer, but they were not paid.” Interns for Congress fall into this category, since their work directly benefits their employer.

Emily Miethner, the founder and CEO of FindSpark, the largest intern meetup group in the country, describes the current legislative landscape like this: Potential interns should make sure the work they’re doing qualifies to be unpaid before they take the internship.

She she focuses on “educating students so that they won’t work for companies that will take advantage of them.”

But in the not-too-distant future, this method may change: Two class-action lawsuits were recently filed with New York’s Second Circuit that challenge the legality of not paying someone to work, Lusher says.

“We are seeing some companies change their practices and have begun paying their interns,” she says. “I am hopeful more companies will do the same.”

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