Should White House interns be paid?

An intern rights campaign heads to Washington

White House interns
(Image credit: Flickr/Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The pay-the-interns movement has made some serious headway this summer.

In June, it scored a win when a federal court decided that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated wage laws by employing unpaid interns on the set of Black Swan. Now, the campaign is going after an even bigger fish: Washington, D.C.

The Fair Pay Campaign, a lobby for intern rights, is trying to convince the federal government to start paying the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 mostly unpaid interns who work in Washington each summer. It's starting, of course, with the famous White House internship program.

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As the White House states on its website under FAQs about the program: "White House Internships are unpaid positions." Not only that: "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." It also specifies that interns work 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Fair Pay's Mikey Franklin says this policy is in conflict with Obama's speech earlier this summer in which he called on Congress to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour. "We don't believe the White House can, in good faith, go after minimum wage and at the same time have unpaid staff," Franklin told CNN.

The Fair Pay Campaign argues that the White House is blocking a huge number of potential applicants whose parents can't pay for them to stay the summer in Washington D.C.

"If you want to break into these industries, you have to work for free," Franklin said. "That's not a reality for a lot of people who aren't upper middle class."

John Sutter at CNN agrees. Unpaid internships are "just one of many ways middle-class and poor Americans are being left behind in the age of income inequality," he says.

The system seems rigged to ensure that wealthier Americans have a much better chance at success than their poorer counterparts.

There are always great rags-to-riches examples that defy this trend. Our pop culture eats that stuff up. But statistics paint a more sobering picture: Only 9.5% of kids born into the bottom income quintile in Washington will rise to the top fifth of earners, according to a recent study from Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley. [CNN]

At the same time, plenty argue that unpaid interns should stop complaining: Internships are education, not labor.

And as Evan McMorris-Santoro of Buzzfeed points out, "In the age of sequestration and deficit-slashing fervor, calling on the federal government to spend money paying workers it doesn’t pay now is a tough sell." Imagine not having a White House internship program at all:

Supporters of unpaid internship programs say that without them, Washington won’t be able to get as much done. Some say forcing interns to be paid in the public sector will eliminate internships altogether, forcing agencies and nonprofits to hire full-time staffers rather than offer interested people the chance to sample various jobs with temporary programs. [Buzzfeed]

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