Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Local Newscast
Hear the latest from the WRKF/WWNO Newsroom.

On Capitol Hill, Most Summer Interns Still Go Unpaid


More members of Congress are deciding to pay their summer interns. But the number who get paid is still small compared to those who work for free. Mikaela Lefrak from member station WAMU talked to interns and advocates about how internship practices affect who ultimately is able to get these jobs.

MIKAELA LEFRAK, BYLINE: On a recent weekday at lunchtime, college student Maz Do sits in a crowded cafeteria in a U.S. House office building. Do goes to New York University, and she's in D.C. for a summer internship with a congressman. It's her dream summer job - almost.

MAZ DO: You know, as soon as I learned I got the position, my next move was to say, OK, what can I do to alleviate financial struggles? And I started searching immediately for a part-time job.

LEFRAK: For the first two months of her summer, Do worked four days a week on her internship and the other three days a week at a D.C. sandwich shop. For housing, she rents out space at a friend's apartment, where she sleeps on an air mattress in the living room.

DO: My roommates have told me in the middle of the night they'll just hear this, like, whirring noise. And that's me reinflating my air bed.

LEFRAK: According to a report from the advocacy group called Pay Our Interns, less than 5 percent of Democrats and 10 percent of Republicans in the House pay interns. Those numbers are higher on the Senate side - about a third of Democrats and half of Republicans pay.

CARLOS VERA: Interns aren't asking for the red carpet. You know, they're just asking for a little bit of help. And then they'll do the rest.

LEFRAK: That's Carlos Vera, the founder of Pay Our Interns. He says middle and upper-class kids have families and universities that can help cover costs during an unpaid internship in Congress. Low-income kids don't. And without that Hill internship, there's less of a chance they'll get a full-time job in Congress, where they could one day make an impact on national policy.

ANTHONY ELIOPOULOS: I mean, there's a reason why I think if you walk around the halls all the interns, they look like me, you know?

LEFRAK: Anthony Eliopoulos is an unpaid House intern from Ohio. He says he can see the lack of diversity when he walks around the House offices.

ELIOPOULOS: And it's unfortunate. I mean, I'm privileged. I'm a white, straight male. You don't get much more privileged than that today in America.

LEFRAK: To afford his summer in D.C., Eliopoulos saved up the money he earned from completing basic training with the Ohio National Guard. He's able to live rent-free with family in Maryland. But he says the costs still add up in a city as expensive as Washington.

ELIOPOULOS: Busing and Metro, it costs a lot. Parking costs a lot, food. I had to buy this suit. So there's a lot of costs that go into it. But it's definitely worth it.

LEFRAK: Changes are coming slowly. California Congressman Scott Peters is working on a bill to make it easier for House offices to add interns to their payroll. Since February, four senators announced they'd begin paying their interns, and a half dozen other lawmakers began reviewing their internship programs. Senator Chris Van Hollen is a Democrat from Maryland. He says he's found the money in his office's budget to pay each of his summer interns a $500 stipend.

CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Every office has a budget allocation, and we just decided to make this a priority and carve out funds.

LEFRAK: He says he'd also like to see a federal program that could provide money to each office for paying interns. Vera says it's a cause that could bring members of Congress together.

VERA: I tell people, what's one thing that, you know, Senator Bernie Sanders has in common with Senator Rand Paul? They both pay their interns.

LEFRAK: Vera earns a small salary advocating for interns but waits tables to get by. This summer, he has an intern. And yes, he says, that intern is paid. For NPR News, I'm Mikaela Lefrak in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAMBANZO'S "ETIOPIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mikaela Lefrak is WAMU’s Arts and Culture reporter. Before moving into that role, she worked as WAMU’s news producer for Morning Edition.