I Am A Former White House Intern, and I Am Calling on the President to Stop Being a Hypocrite and Start Paying His Interns

Dear President Obama, I'll take you a lot more seriously about fighting for a higher minimum wage -- if you actually paid one to people like me.

Aug 27, 2013 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

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Last week an editorial came out in The Washington Post called "No Whining Allowed: Don't Pay White House Interns."

I have worked as a White House intern. I was not paid. I did not need to be paid.

That's because my family is wealthy and upper middle class and can float me for a summer while my less fortunate peers are forced to get jobs clearing tables at Olive Garden.

And yet, here I am writing a response editorial of my own to The Washington Post -- or a response "whine" if you prefer -- that my fellow Americans who did not receive the same degree of blinding privilege that I had growing up absolutely do deserve the same opportunity to have access to this life-changing internship.

How can this be achieved?

By calling on President Obama to set a national example for internship programs the world over and change his current shameful practice of relying on unpaid interns in the White House.

Why?

Because I believe every American -- even if they are not white, wealthy and can afford to attend an elite Ivy League school like me -- should have access to an internship at the highest office in the land. And President Obama needs to start leading by example so other internship programs will follow in turn.

Currently, the Department of Labor has this really nebulous standard that internships must "benefit the intern more than the employers."

But how do you measure this? How do you establish how much material benefit there is?

There are two basic standards for when an employer can offer someone an unpaid internship. The first is that the internship can't displace regular work. The second is that the internship has to be of more benefit to the intern than to the employer. My internship at the White House definitely did not meet this criteria. No one's internship at the White House that I know of meets this criteria.

To get everyone up to speed, here are the state of internships in this country, currently:

1. More than a hundred interns have recently filed lawsuits in the wake of being asked to work long hours for zero pay. In fact, The Daily Beast called this movement a key factor in 2013 being "The Year of the Intern."

2. A federal judge ruled that Fox Searchlight actually broke labor laws by using unpaid interns to work on the very profitable "Black Swan" movie.

3. The Lean In Foundation of Sheryl Sandberg, who is personally worth upward of $400 million, faced a huge amount of criticism after her editor Jessica Bennett posted a position for an unpaid intern. Ironically, Bennett herself wrote in the New York Times about wage disparity facing women of color: "The difference is stark: 77 cents for white women; 69 cents for black women. The final dollar -- so small that it can fit in a coin purse, represents 57 cents, for Latina women." The hypocrisy in this case resulted in the foundation launching a formal paid internship program.

4. Recently three former Gawker interns were identified by The New York Post as the individuals suing the media company for unpaid work between 2008 and 2010. In August 2012 Gawker still offered unpaid internships for college credit, but in January they started offering paid hourly "fellowships." When writing about the case, Gawker called the three "ungrateful."

5. The indignity of life as an unpaid D.C. intern was highlighted when an 80-page "2013 Intern manual" was just revealed on Gawker last week with depressing rules about interning for House Speaker John Boehner like: “Do what you are asked," "Always say yes," and "You are not here to change the world."

6. Condé Nast was hit with a lawsuit this summer for paying interns less than a buck an hour. Now the company has changed its policy and has stopped paying interns entirely. The blog Who Pays Interns Tumblr reported that the stipends have dropped from $550 per semester to nothing.

7. Perhaps the ultimate horror happened this month when a Bank of America intern in the United Kingdom died after working three apparent all-nighters, as reported on wallstreetoasis.com.

8. Now this Labor Day, the Fair Pay Campaign launches with a call on President Obama to pay White House interns to set an example for other employers in D.C., around the country and around the world. "If you want to break into these industries, you have to work for free," said the leader of the campaign, Mikey Franklin. "That's not a reality for a lot of people who aren't upper middle class."

9. Except? The estimate to pay those interns is being calculated at more than $2.5 million a year by CNN, which is the amount the White House used to pay tour guides, until that program was shuttered in March because of forced budget cuts. This figure comes from the assumption that the White House uses more than 300 unpaid interns a year and each intern is expected to work 45 hours a week with payment slated at $9 an hour -- which is the figure President Obama suggested the minimum wage should be raised to in his State of the Union in January.

10. Not only do White House internships not pay, but interns often actually have to spend "a couple thousand dollars" to take an internship, including relocation costs, rent and transportation costs, as reported by one of my fellow former White House interns Emily Jane Fox, a journalist for CNNMoney.

All in all? A very sorry state.

I knew what I was getting into when I applied for my White House internship -- as of course everyone does. The White House FAQ also explains that I, and every other intern, had to be on the job "at least Monday-Friday, 9:00 AM - 6:00 PM." Not only that, but if you are not somehow independently wealthy, you can't even find an outside paying job -- without the White House's approval.

As the FAQ explains: "White House Internships are unpaid positions. Any outside income, funding or housing assistance received as a White House intern must be pre-approved by the Office of the White House Counsel.

The woman who approves these requests is a friendly former kindergarten teacher, and yes, most requests are approved. Essentially, the White House doesn't want interns to be "profiting" off the internship experience while you are an intern. I understand the reasoning. What they don't want is for you to be working at the NRA on weekends -- and exploiting the connections you are making. But the ludicrousness of not even being able to take on an outside paying job without the White House's approval is not lost on me.

Of course, I realize that fixing the system is an incredible task. But it can be done. And President Obama is the one to do it.

Even if the gesture is largely symbolic, President Obama needs to step up. The Department of Labor sets the standards for when entities cannot pay their workers, and it's under the executive branch. President Obama is calling the shots and if he were to implement new standards, he could spark the beginning of the end to this self-perpetuating cycle that rewards almost solely on economic privilege like my own.

For the president to be championing minimum wage and living wage laws and then having a gigantic staff of basically unpaid workers is frustrating and hypocritical.

The Department of Labor needs to change standards so that we don't create a permanent underclass in this country with no chance of creating upward mobility.

Unpaid internships are an issue because they've become a gateway. They are a required thing that you have to do to get a job in the Washington Congressional think tank. You can't get a job in Washington politics without working an unpaid job first. That's fine if your parents have enough money to pay your rent and food as mine did. But as the economic stratification in this country shows, that is not the case for the majority of young people.

If you can't afford to work for free in this country, then you get effectively excluded from an entire industry. Perhaps the most important industry of all: government.

By some estimates, half a million undergrads do unpaid internships every year. If there was a requirement to start paying interns, it would be an integral step toward having more of a meritocracy in this country.

It would also mean half a million jobs.

I fully support President Obama in his efforts to change the minimum wage in this country to economically benefit all Americans.

But he needs to start by cleaning his own house first.

Posted in Issues, interns, white house