Unpaid interns are practically non-existent among Democratic presidential campaigns in 2019. But some top-tier candidates appear to be finding a creative way to tap unpaid talent: offering vague “fellowship” opportunities as volunteer positions.
There’s no singular definition for a “fellow” among 2020 candidates and most this cycle don’t offer the option. But two leading contenders, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), give applicants who are selected a chance to participate in the campaign as volunteer fellows, without requiring compensation or academic credit.
“Volunteers are asked to do something, workers are told,” Renée Hagerty, an executive council member for the Campaign Workers Guild, said. “Everyone who’s performing work on a campaign should be paid.”
For Biden’s campaign, the “Team Joe Organizing Fellowship” consists of an eight-week program that includes weekly online trainings in grassroots and digital organizing, according to the listing, which closed this week. Unlike the internship program, which is paid $15 per hour, the fellowship program makes no mention of wages, academic credit, or time commitments.
Warren’s campaign features one joint application with three options: paid internship, volunteer fellowship, or volunteer fellowship for academic credit. Applicants are allowed to select more than one when applying.
Warren’s deputy communications director Chris Hayden told The Daily Beast their internship program “offers a limited number of paid, full-time campaign experiences on a competitive basis” and that “interns commit to working 30 hours a week, and have access to paid health insurance in addition to their weekly salary.”
“The campaign also offers a volunteer fellowship program, which provides similar training and work experiences with a smaller time commitment,” Hayden added. “Many of our campaign fellows receive stipends from educational institutions or other third-parties, and everyone in our intern and fellowship programs has access to cost-free supporter housing while they’re working in-state.”
Still, Guillermo Creamer, co-founder of the non-profit group Pay Our Interns, said there’s a “gray area” that emerges from having both paid and unpaid options, creating a “fine line” between the roles.
“It is interesting that some campaigns can still think about having both,” Creamer said. “The question now is: is fellowship the scapegoat for not paying individuals?”
Multiple activists who spoke to The Daily Beast declined to call out individual campaigns, saying they’re generally pleased with the progress this cycle on the paid internship front, what some see as the first hurdle to overcome. But the separate volunteer fellowship option has led several activists to question the program’s cost-benefit analysis.
“What’s actually the difference?” Creamer said when asked about paid internships versus unpaid fellowships. “Campaigns have to be the ones who identify that.”
Coming off the heels of a strong second quarter of fundraising, Biden and Warren each crystallized their spots in the top of the Democratic pack both in polls and in money raised. Biden brought in $21.5 million, while Warren reported $19.1 million. The large sums are even stronger reasons to pay fellows for work, rather than doling out fancy titles in exchange, some activists pointed out.
“At Biden for President, interns are employees who are paid by the hour (capped at 30 hours a week),” a campaign spokesperson wrote in an email. “Whereas fellows are part of an educational experience which we hope will equip them to be effective organizers in the future, and are not employees of the campaign.”
“Bosses have been coming up with reasons and excuses and caveats for not paying people since the dawn of time,” Hagerty said, without commenting on any campaign specifically. “This is another version that fits into a middle-class narrative of prestige.”
Legally, there’s no definition in the campaign finance world that would distinguish internships from fellowships, an official from the Campaign Legal Center said. “Campaigns are given pretty broad leeway for how they spend their money. They can provide any title they want,” the official added.
In a field of nearly two dozen contenders, other candidates offer several different fellowship models. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) offer paid fellowships, while Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) requires unpaid fellows to receive academic credit in order to participate in the program. The majority of other candidates offer paid internships.
While some activists view the practice as a delicate balance between opening a door to those who seek the experience and a loophole for campaigns to use free labor, not everyone agrees the practice is problematic.
“There’s utilitarian reasons for campaigns and there’s utilitarian reasons for the workforce,” Janice Fine, an assistant professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University, said. For some, fellowships can be a vital way to gain experience with a specific candidate or area of expertise, without having to commit to a set number of hours or responsibilities, she added.
“A lot of these jobs are just for the experience,” Alan Seals, a labor economist and professor of economics at Auburn University, agreed. “The worst thing [campaigns] can do is say ‘no they’re all employees now and you’ve got to pay them minimum wage.’ It would be an absolute disaster.”
But that argument is what some activists say is part of the problem, and that there needs to be a clear pay-for-work metric that mirrors the fair wage platforms campaigns are pushing on the trail.
“It smacks of hypocrisy,” Hagerty said. “No candidate wants to be a hypocrite.”
Updated to include comment from the Biden campaign.