Arianna Miskin, a former unpaid Capitol Hill intern, says interning for free after working for a year was hard to swallow.
“I knew at every point how many more months I could stay full-time on the Hill before I would run out of money."
Miskin interned for Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Ca, in 2018, a year after she graduated from the University of South Carolina. Before landing the 6-month internship in Washington, D.C., Miskin worked building up her savings account – because the internship with Sherman, was unpaid.
“These struggles that interns have, they are not unique,” says Guillermo Creamer Jr., co-founder of the non-profit Pay Our Interns. “Unfortunately, they are very common and are the stories we tend to not talk about.”
Pay Our Interns, an advocacy group for paid internships within government, for-profit, and non-profit sectors has been lobbying Congress to pay interns since 2016. As a former unpaid intern himself, Creamer understands the sacrifices that are made firsthand.
“I was a live-in babysitter where I worked 15 hours a week in exchange for rent,” Creamer said. “I specifically remember that summer calling out [sick] more than once because a babysitting opportunity arose, and I needed the money.”
Unpaid internships on the Hill, according to Miskin, impact more than just a student’s wallet.
“Even though I tried to take care of my mental health as much as possible, it definitely took a toll on me, “said Miskin. “I couldn’t get my mind around the fact that I worked for a whole year, had this experience, and it didn’t matter.”
Former New York State Senate intern, who we are calling Marc, interned part-time while taking classes full-time. “I knew going into it that it was an unpaid internship. Personally, from my point of view, I was okay with it because I really wanted to get my feet we in the political world,” he said.
Despite not receiving compensation for the internship, Marc feels the experience was worth it. “The people that I worked with as well as my colleagues were phenomenal. It was a really fun environment to work in,” he said.
Pay Our Interns data shows that only 9% of Congressional offices explicitly state that they offer paid internships and 61% of offices advertise that they do not pay interns.
In New York, 92% of New York State legislature offices in Congress do not pay their interns. Only two offices state on their websites that they pay interns and 11 out of the 27 offices explicitly say on their websites that they do not pay interns. 14 offices in do not list information regarding internship pay.
According to Money.com, 4.9% of all internships in Washington, D.C. are paid. Congress is now working to change that. Presidential Candidate Tim Ryan D-OH, chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee and approved an increase in the current internship fund for all House offices.
Currently, each House office is allotted $20,000 to pay interns. All of that will change next year. In 2020, each office will receive $25,000 from the internship fund to pay interns.
“This is something that was really important to me. I was a former intern here a long time ago,” said Ryan. “It’s important because we want to make sure that kids who come from poorer communities have the access to be able to come to Capitol Hill and maybe get a little bit of help.”
Ryan hopes the funding will inspire more young people to work in government. “We’re at a really critical juncture today in the United States where we need all the talent we can get to come into government,” he says. “We want to try and start creating some initiatives where we can start pulling people back in.”
Before 1973, congressional interns were unpaid. They began to be paid through the establishment of the Lyndon B. Johnson Congressional Intern Program. However, the funds for interns only covered one intern per office in the House.
A New York State Senate intern, who we are calling Sam, works full-time in New York City and is frustrated with the lack of effort to compensate dedicated interns. “A lot is expected of you and that’s fine, a lot should be expected of you at any internship, but when you’re not paid I think there has to be limits to the hours that people demand of you,” he said.
Sam also points out that even living miles away from home, the financial stress an unpaid intern faces can fall into the hands of their families. “You don't want to put your parents in a situation where you are constantly asking them for money. That’s not fair to them and you don’t want to put your family through financial stress,” said Sam.
Even though every House office receives $20,000 from the current internship fund, many offices still don’t compensate interns at all. According to the Committee on House Administration, that money to pay interns does not include those working in district offices.
“I think as an organization our biggest focus is ensuring that this money that we worked so hard to advocate for is actually being implemented in offices,” said Creamer.
While life as an unpaid intern on the Hill can be grueling, Miskin says, she hasn’t completely rejected the idea of trying it out again. “Even though the Hill kind of chewed me up and spit me out I definitely one day may return because of the work they do,” said Miskin. “The work is important and you feel important while you’re there. It’s hard to say no to that.”