These Dems Want a $15 Wage. Guess What Their Interns Make.
From Nancy Pelosi to Pramila Jayapal, offices of Democratic lawmakers are offering interns less than $15 an hour. And most of them say it’s the system’s fault.
A $15 minimum wage is now one of the most mainstream policy platforms among Democrats in Congress. In the House this year, 198 of 220 Democrats signed on to legislation to raise the minimum wage, as did 37 of 50 Democrats in the Senate.
But if you’re an intern for any one of these Democratic lawmakers, odds are you’re making far less than $15 an hour.
The Daily Beast examined wages during the third quarter of 2020 in the offices of every Democrat who supports a $15 minimum wage. While no full-time staffer appeared to make less than that rate, many made just over that amount—translating to a bit more than $31,000 a year.
In the majority of offices, however, interns make well below $15 an hour. Of the 235 Democrats in both chambers who have sponsored legislation establishing a $15 minimum wage, more than 140 appeared to pay their interns less than the hourly minimum they support, though it’s impossible to provide a definitive number because some offices only have interns work part-time hours, or have outside groups supplement their interns’ pay.
Still, a number of offices confirmed they pay interns less than $15 an hour, noting that the House provides only $25,000 in total for intern compensation and fellows. Among those offices are some of the biggest and most liberal names in Congress: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), Congressional Progressive Caucus chairwoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), and liberal champions like Katie Porter (D-CA), Madeleine Dean (D-PA), and Ted Lieu (D-CA).
Most of those offices told The Daily Beast that they fully support paying interns $15 an hour. It’s just that, with such limited support for interns, $25,000 wouldn’t even cover the cost of having one intern working full time.
“It has long been a priority for the Speaker to ensure that young people’s internship opportunities in Congress are determined by their ability, passion and patriotism, not by their family’s financial situation,” Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, told The Daily Beast.
He said that interns who had received Pell Grants during college—which is need-based financial aid for higher education—actually did get $15 an hour in Pelosi’s office. “Additionally, each semester we receive a significant number of applicants pursuing internships for college credit and are therefore ineligible for financial compensation,” Hammill said. “The Committee on House Administration, under the leadership of Chair Zoe Lofgren, is reviewing additional steps the committee can take to allow more Members to compensate all of their interns at the equivalent of $15 an hour.”
A spokesperson for Hoyer’s office also said they try to make internships as accessible as possible and provide a monthly stipend.
“The American people are best served by experienced Congressional staff that represent the diversity of our nation, which is why Leader Hoyer continues to advocate for increased staff pay and additional funding for intern pay,” a spokesperson said. “As a former Congressional intern himself, Leader Hoyer is acutely aware of the need to provide interns a fair wage that allows them to access opportunities and experiences on the Hill.”
And a spokesperson for Jayapal said that, because the office only receives $25,000 a year for all interns and fellows in their office, they had decided to “dramatically shrink” the number of interns they accepted for each term so they could pay each individual intern more. “We continue urging the House to allocate additional funding for internships and fellowships so we can increase pay while opening up this opportunity to more people,” the spokesperson said.
In general, when asked for comment on not paying interns $15 an hour, Democrats mostly blamed the system.
The sentiment was perhaps best summed up by D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who said that while she supports paying interns $15 an hour, it is virtually impossible with what Congress currently provides. “Until Congress updates its $25,000 allowance for interns, we have no funds to go above $1,000 divided among 3-4 interns among the three semesters: winter, spring, and fall,” she said.
Some offices do try to offer more money to interns based on need. For instance, Pelosi’s office offers that better pay to interns who were eligible for Pell Grants during college, as does Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). And some offices told The Daily Beast that their interns were part of a fellowship program with outside groups picking up part of their salary to get them over $15 an hour. Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton’s office, for example, uses the $25,000 Congress provides to support such a program.
“Rather than spreading that around in small amounts to many interns, our office uses it to fund a fellowship for which we actively recruit diverse candidates who would like to work in foreign policy and national security but need a foot in the door,” a spokesperson for Moulton said. “We provide some stipends with the funds that remain.”
But it is possible, even with the meager $25,000 that Congress gives to House offices and $50,000 for Senate offices, to pay interns $15 an hour.
Offices like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s dig into their staffer budgets to supplement what the House supplies to pay interns to get them to $15 an hour. Ditto for the offices of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Pat Leahy (D-VT), and Mazie Hirono (D-HI).
But House rules actually make it difficult to pay an intern at that rate. There is currently an $1,800 cap on monthly pay for interns—whether it comes from the intern fund or a lawmaker’s own staff budget. That means, under those rules, that if House interns are to make $15 an hour and be paid through congressional funds, they can only work 30 hours a week.
In the Senate, it’s easier to pay interns $15 an hour. They don’t have similar rules capping intern pay. And their budgets—both for interns and their overall staff budgets—are much larger. Still, some Senate offices confirmed they don’t pay all of their interns $15 an hour, including Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Tina Smith (D-NH), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Klobuchar.
It’s easy to point to the hypocrisy of Democrats on this issue. They support a $15 minimum wage, and even if these people are only getting started in their careers, they’re not making what Democrats say is a livable wage.
Democrats, as they’re wont to do, pointed to Republicans as the problem, saying it was the GOP’s fault that office budgets hadn’t risen over the years, and that there wasn’t sufficient money for interns. But during the course of reporting this story, a number of senior staffers for Democratic offices were happy to point out the shortcomings of their own policies.
“There is no doubt about it,” said one senior Democratic aide for an office paying interns less than $15 an hour. “This is a system that benefits people of means, who can have mommy and daddy kick in while they spend some time getting experience in Congress.”
Indeed, all of the interns The Daily Beast spoke to for this story shared one key attribute: They had financial help.
“I’m exactly the example of the upper middle-class, college-educated demographic,” said one former intern. “I’m one of the people who can afford this.”
This former intern said he was fortunate to have the internship during the pandemic—meaning he could live at home with his parents and keep costs down. But he said he also knew former interns who had tried to juggle their congressional responsibilities with multiple side jobs.
“Trying to hold two jobs and pay rent and apply for jobs while living in D.C. is not easy,” he said.
“The fact that you have to work so hard to get paid so little is a huge barrier,” the former intern continued. “And people can’t afford to spend six months doing these basically unpaid jobs and do all this unpaid time and then get a job that won’t make up for it.”
That’s another issue.
Even if the jobs that congressional offices offer are more than $15 an hour, they aren’t much more. The average salary of a staff assistant in Congress is just over $35,000, according to Glassdoor. That means someone could be coming out of college with student loans, take an internship that doesn’t cover the high costs of living in D.C.—where the average rent for a studio apartment is $1,669 a month, according to Apartment List—and the light at the end of the tunnel is the hope of a job that barely pays more than the starting wage at Chipotle.
“If you don’t come from a family that’s able to support you, I think it can be prohibitive to some kids who are trying to get into public service,” said another former Democratic intern.
“I think that typically ends up affecting minorities, so it has a racial component to it as well that I don’t think you can ignore,” he continued. “It’s just a huge equity issue.”
This former intern theorized that internships were the primary gateway for congressional staffers, saying there may be a trickle-down effect where Congress would limit its staffer pool to those who come from more privileged financial backgrounds.
“I was almost paying for the internship,” he said. “A lot of people can’t afford to go four or five months without any income.”
Most interns do make some money. Congress introduced a paid internship program in its 2019 budget, in response to some of the criticism that they were placing unnecessary financial strain on interns and limiting who is able to take such a position. The program added $20,000 to each House member’s annual budget—the Members Representational Allowance (MRA)—and $50,000 to Senate offices, specifically to fund internships. The House budgets got a small boost the following year, to $25,000.
Before 2017, an estimated 10 percent of congressional interns were paid, according to research from advocacy group Pay Our Interns, which lobbied for the pay hikes. The research found that after the program was implemented, intern stipends averaged out to $1,986.75 in the Senate and $1,612.53 in the House—barely enough to cover D.C. rent.
Although the program was designed in part to increase diversity among the intern pool, the Pay Our Interns survey suggests it has had the opposite effect—about 76 percent of paid interns are white, while Blacks and Latinos are significantly underrepresented.
“Our office was quite diverse when I began and has become a lot whiter since I’ve been there. I think that’s in large part because we’ve also had a lot of white interns,” said one former intern who has since joined a House office full time. “If we had a more diverse intern class, we’d have a more diverse full-time staff. And people can’t afford to put in months of unpaid time hoping to get a job with a salary that won’t make up for it.”
Interns also pointed out that their pay rates create ripple effects.
“Lobbying vultures are hanging around and always poaching staff. So the revolving door is always an option,” a third former intern told The Daily Beast. “And when staff is overworked and underpaid, a member will be more likely to take lobbyists at face value. If a lobbyist sends pre-written legislation but the office doesn’t have the bandwidth or the diversity of experience to assess these things, members will be a lot less effective.”
The issue also poses a political problem for Democrats. Beyond the obvious hypocrisy of advocating for a $15 minimum wage while not paying interns the same amount, they don’t have the ability to single-handedly raise office budgets. And even if they did, that would be its own political problem.
Member and staff pay has always been a tricky issue. Member salaries have been flat since Republicans capped them in 2011: $174,000 for all members, with the exception of top congressional leaders. And during those 10 years, staff salaries have fallen on average. But Democrats are trying to address the issue.
Earlier this week, more than 100 lawmakers sent Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) a letter asking for an increase to congressional office budgets.
“For years, pay and benefits for the staff of Member offices, leadership offices, and committees have fallen farther and farther behind what is offered in the private sector,” the letter, led by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, said. “At the same time, the cost of living here in our nation’s capital has risen substantially, placing opportunities such as homeownership, rental housing, and childcare out of reach for many.”
The letter continued that that disparity had “hamstrung” the House’s ability to recruit and retain the “talented and diverse workforce we need to serve the diversity and needs of the American people in the best way possible.”
One of Ocasio-Cortez’s former senior staffers, Dan Riffle, quote-tweeted the letter and said he had recently left the congresswoman’s office because of poor congressional pay and taken a job with local D.C. government.
Ocasio-Cortez pays her senior staff far less than other offices because she pays her junior staffers more. Her chief of staff makes just shy of $100,000, while her staff assistants make $52,000. Meanwhile, in other offices, chiefs of staff make only slightly less than the member, with most offices paying between $140,000 and $170,000.
In those offices, the result is that junior staffers have to make less. And if those financial realities aren’t changing anytime soon, neither is low congressional pay—particularly for interns.
A former congressional intern coordinator told The Daily Beast his office had difficulty balancing its budget against staffing requirements. “I had conversations about this with our chief of staff, that if we were going to pay interns, we would have to fire somebody,” he said.