The hypocrisy of ‘progressive’ but unpaid internships
By Evan Popp & Celisa Calacal
A little over $50 million. That’s how much revenue the Center for American Progress (CAP) reported for the year of 2014.
175 dollars. That’s the amount of money per week each of us received while working as full-time interns at CAP. When broken down, we were each making about $4 an hour — even though the minimum wage in Washington D.C., where CAP is located, is $11.50. While we both also received a generous $350 stipend from the Park Center for Independent Media, that still didn’t bring us even close to making minimum wage.
CAP is an ostensibly progressive think tank founded in 2003 by John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and the star of a Wikileaks email release. Along with Podesta, many CAP employees — including President and CEO Neera Tanden — have deep ties to the Democratic Party.
As interns working for ThinkProgress, an editorially independent news site housed at CAP, we wrote several articles on a weekly basis, conducted research and transcribed interviews — tasks full-time reporters in the same office also did. While there were distinctions between interns and staffers, the amount of work interns contributed to the site was not insignificant.
CAP bills itself as an organization dedicated to “improving the lives of all Americans, through bold, progressive ideas.” In that spirit, it strongly supports initiatives like raising the minimum wage. Despite this, CAP does not pay its own interns even close to a minimum wage, asking them to survive on just $4 an hour. CAP did not respond to a request for comment on whether it believes interns deserve a fair wage.
To be fair, low intern wages are an issue on both sides of the aisle, with conservative think tanks and political organizations also often paying their interns a paltry wage or simply not paying them at all. However, it is extraordinarily hypocritical for a progressive organization like CAP that favors a higher minimum wage and claims to advocate for economic justice to pay its interns just $4 an hour.
Sydney Pereira, a fellow intern at ThinkProgress during the summer of 2016, said while she appreciated that CAP’s pay was better than what many interns are paid — nothing at all — it was frustrating to not be paid a living wage. She said the pay was particularly aggravating given CAP’s outspoken support for upping the minimum wage.
“You’re asking people to work 40 plus hours a week for $4 an hour,” she said. “And I find it completely contradictory to everything progressive institutions [advocate for].”
Additionally, as summer interns at CAP, we were expected to work full-time. That means CAP interns contributed heavily to the think tank’s operations but were paid far less than our contributions were worth. For example, Lee Mengitsu, a summer 2016 CAP intern, said the amount of work she was doing — essentially being the only person doing video work on her team — was not reflected in the money she received.
“All of that responsibility was on me,” she said. “So I feel like I was doing basically what a full-time employee was doing — at least a part-time employee — and I wasn’t being compensated as I should have.”
The full-time work requirement also made it difficult for interns to find a second job to bring in extra cash and because of the think tank’s location, many interns needed more than a $4 an hour salary. In 2016, Washington D.C. was ranked the fifth most expensive city to live in by an Economist Intelligence Unit report. Duncan Weinstein, another intern at CAP during the summer of 2016, said CAP doesn’t pay its interns enough to live in the nation’s capital.
“It’s not enough to live on and … for people like me who are from other places, I had to use my own savings or ask my parents for money to be able to make that work,” he said.
Some organizations that have been called out for not paying interns minimum wage have argued they simply can’t afford such expenses because of budget constraints. While being a small budget organization doesn’t necessarily excuse not paying interns well, CAP is anything but a shoestring operation. The organization has a budget in the millions each year and receives generous donations from deep-pocketed Democrats. Tanden alone was paid $301,274 during the 2014 calendar year, according to CAP’s 990 form.
Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute — a left-wing think tank — said large organizations like CAP have no excuse for paying interns a paltry wage.
“CAP is a 20 million dollar a year or 40 million dollar a year operation,” he said. “A lot of money flows through that place and a lot of people are paid pretty well, and there’s no reason on earth that interns couldn’t be paid a minimum wage.”
CAP is not the only culprit
It’s important to note CAP is not the only progressive organization paying its interns below minimum wage.
Left-wing organizations such as the Democratic National Committee, the National Employment Law Project, Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List, the National Organization for Women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Americans for Democratic Action either do not pay their interns or pay them below minimum wage. In addition, many of the state branches of the American Civil Liberties Union offer unpaid internships while some other branches only provide a “stipend” in an unspecified amount.
Each of these organizations supports an increase in the minimum wage. And each, similar to CAP, is not a small operation. They have large budgets and are not suffering from financial hardships that would prevent them from being able to compensate interns fairly.
Many progressive politicians also don’t adequately pay their interns. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a progressive superstar and an ardent supporter of raising the minimum wage, does not guarantee her interns a fair wage. Students who are not receiving academic credit or outside funding are eligible for a stipend, not the fair compensation that is reflective of Warren’s own political views.
Hillary Clinton, who in her campaign supported raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour, did not pay the interns who worked for her. And most members of Congress who support a minimum wage hike don’t pay their interns, according to a USA Today article from July 2015. The White House also has unpaid internships, despite the fact that President Barack Obama supports raising employees’ pay.
Progressive journalism outlets also offer low paid internships. Publications such as The American Prospect, The Indypendent and In These Times have championed labor rights while not paying their interns at all or offering only a stipend below what they advocate other employers pay workers.
But not all progressive organizations forget their principles when it comes to interns. The Nation, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Brennan Center for Justice — to name a few — all pay their interns at least a minimum wage.
However, these organizations aren’t the norm. Too many progressive groups don’t practice what they preach when it comes to intern labor, instead taking advantage of the pressure students feel to get an internship.
One example of this is Kaitlin Logsdon, a senior communication, management and design major at Ithaca College who interned at what she described as a progressive organization focused on sustainability efforts. She said she felt obligated to take that internship even though it paid less than minimum wage. (Logsdon declined to name the organization she interned for.)
“I felt like I had to take that internship in the city because of what’s pushed within our major — that you need to do an internship in the city in order to make those connections,” she said.
While CAP and other progressive organizations hypocritically ignore their own edicts by not paying a minimum wage, there are many in the intern economy who have it worse, receiving no pay at all.
Unpaid internships have become increasingly prevalent across many industries, Sheryl Swingley, a journalism instructor at Ball State University and former internship coordinator at the institution, said.
“Part of it was due to the fact that we had the Great Recession, — that didn’t help things,” she said. “When we went through that, people who had paid [their interns] quit paying during that time. And then afterward they didn’t start paying again.”
Eric Glatt, a participant in the group Intern Labor Rights, said the number of unpaid interns is an elusive number because when the Bureau of Labor Statistics does population surveys of the workforce, it doesn’t ask whether interns are paid or unpaid. The best estimate, he said, comes from the book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy by Ross Perlin. In the book, Glatt said Perlin estimates the number of unpaid interns each year to be one or two million.
Swingley said every organization should pay its interns because not paying them is illegal. And in fact, Glatt said even interns who are paid, but at below minimum wage, have a legitimate legal case against employers. However, he said in addition to the courts, students should push their colleges and universities to provide for more oversight of internship programs.
“There’s a built in challenge for students who do oppose this in principle, which is most of the students are in a position to try to push their schools for change,” he said.
When it comes to unpaid internships, however, Glatt said small organizations without much revenue that can’t afford to pay their interns should call their internships what they really are.
“If you’re a non-profit and your reason for having people work for you unpaid is simply that you need the extra labor and you don’t have the budget for it and your mission is worthwhile, I think it’s a mistake to call it an internship,” he said. “Call it what it is. : volunteering.”
However, organizations that use unpaid intern labor would likely argue that unpaid internships are permissible under the Department of Labor’s six criteria for a legal unpaid internship.
But Swingley said organizations aren’t fulfilling these benchmarks. She said the criteria are that the internship must be similar to training in an educational environment; the intern experience has to be for the benefit of the intern; the intern can’t displace regular employees; the employer must not gain any immediate benefit from the intern and in some cases is actually impeded by them; the intern can’t be guaranteed a job after their internship is over; and the employer and the intern must both understand there is no monetary compensation involved.
Swingley said whether employers fulfill the first three criteria is questionable. But she said the fourth criterion — that the employer doesn’t gain any immediate benefit from the intern and its operations are in some cases impeded by the intern — is laughable.
“I have never had an employer call me up and say, ‘We want an intern, we know how much trouble they are. We know that they’re probably going to cause us to miss a deadline,’” Swingley said. “No, it’s always the other direction. ‘We need an intern because we have all this work that needs to be done and we need the help.’”
The race and class dynamics of internships
The consequences of unpaid or underpaid internships have become apparent. These kinds of internships are difficult for young adults from low-income backgrounds to take, which perpetuates the insidious cycle of inequality in this country.
Many internship opportunities, particularly those in politics, policy and communications, are located in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C. — places that have high costs of living. And for college students or recent college graduates looking for internships in these areas, an unpaid or sub-minimum wage internship makes it virtually impossible to feasibly support themselves on a daily basis for several months. Those who aren’t of a middle, upper middle or high economic class, or whose families can’t afford to provide them financial assistance, often can’t take such opportunities.
Mengitsu ties the ability to take unpaid or underpaid internships like those at CAP or elsewhere to privilege. She said she could intern at CAP and live in D.C. because of her access to many resources that other qualified students may not have had. Mengitsu added that many in the summer 2016 CAP intern class were in similar privileged positions.
“I got the impression that a lot of us were there because we were able to, because we had access to certain things,” she said. “But a lot of well-deserving students could’ve been there but weren’t able to because of the pay.”
Pereira said this continuing trend of unpaid or underpaid internships disproportionately impacts people of color whose parents may not have the means to cover their rent or pay for their groceries. She said this puts these young people of color at a disadvantage when trying to enter the professional workforce, leading to a lack of diversity in those spaces.
“If they are just as smart and just as capable and can’t take the internship, you’re putting them at a disadvantage,” she said. “Because they have to go to industries where they will get paid, and then you’re keeping people of color out of lower-paid industries.”
Nonprofits are one example of this, as such organizations are not known for their high pay and subsequently have a lack of diversity. A study conducted by the Diversity Journal in 2010 showed that only 18 percent of staff in nonprofit organizations are people of color. The same problem exists in the media industry as well. According to the Radio Television Digital News Association, in 2014 only 22.4 percent of television reporters were people of color. Newspapers were not much better — minorities made up just 12.76 percent of the staff in 2015, according to the American Society of News Editors.
Unpaid or underpaid internships push out these students, instead favoring those who can afford to shell out thousands of dollars to live in the expensive cities where many internships are located. In the case of government internships, Eisenbrey said unpaid or underpaid internships in the government sector can lead to a government that doesn’t look like the entirety of the U.S.
“If those doors aren’t open to them then we get a non-representative government and that’s a bad thing,” he said.
Congressional representation is still not proportional to the makeup of racial minorities in this country. According to the Pew Research Center, a miniscule 17 percent of Congressional representatives are non-white people of color, even though minorities make up 38 percent of the U.S. population.
Many young adults today are constantly bombarded with professional advice that tells them that experience and connections are key. As a result, internships are promoted as avenues to achieve this experience and these connections. But when people of color and those from low-income backgrounds cannot afford to take an unpaid internship in an expensive city, Pereira said they are already put at a disadvantage.
And for think tanks like CAP, Glatt said this disadvantage negatively impacts the organization itself.
“That’s a tragedy when it comes to policymaking,” he said. “Because you’re not hearing from the full breadth of the electorate.”
Evan Popp and Celisa Calacal are both third-year journalism majors who go to together much better than progressive organizations and not being compensated. You can contact them at [email protected] and [email protected].