Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has earned praise for her efforts to lift the veil and show what Congress is really like on social media, had another revelation to share with her followers on Monday.
“This week I went to dive spot in DC for some late night food. I chatted up the staff,” the newly-elected congresswoman wrote on Twitter. “SEVERAL bartenders, managers, & servers *currently worked in Senate + House offices.* This is a disgrace. Congress of ALL places should raise [Members’ Representational Allowance — each office’s budget] so we can pay staff an actual DC living wage.”
Carlos Vera identifies. Vera was an unpaid intern for former Rep. Joe Baca in 2012. Two years ago, he started the advocacy group Pay Our Interns to pressure members of the House and Senate to pay their interns and staffers fairly. And he spent all last year working as server while the organization got off the ground.
The same day Ocasio-Cortez shared her story, Pay Our Interns tweeted out an advertisement for an unpaid position in Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office. As the organization pointed out, Schumer, himself, started his political career as an intern, bringing in $1,800 a month in 1969. But that was long before the LBJ Congressional Intern program was axed under President Clinton’s deficit reduction plan in 1994. (The program had guaranteed interns were paid.)
On Monday afternoon, a Schumer spokesman Angelo Roefaro told Rolling Stone in an email, the advertisement for an unpaid intern “was made in error. Starting in January, Senator Schumer’s office will offer a stipend to eligible interns.”
“It’s a very nasty system that keeps rich people in control,” Vera says of unpaid internships, which cost the intern, on average, about $6,000 — money that limits the pool of eligible applicants to those who come from families wealthy enough to subsidize their children’s living expenses. As a former intern himself, and as a Latino, Vera says, “I saw an extreme lack of diversity, both in interns and staff in Congress.”
Two years ago, when he set his mind to helping change the dynamics on Capitol Hill, no data on which offices did and didn’t pay their interns existed, so Vera began collecting information and ultimately compiling it into a report, which found about a quarter of Senate Democrats and half of Senate Republicans paid their interns.
The data helped spur action in certain corners of Congress, but progress was halting and ad hoc — some offices offered need-based stipends, others imposed restrictions on intern pay or simply refused to budge on the issue. And, Vera says, “Senator Schumer’s office was one that we had reached out to to work with. They were not on board with paying their interns.” He characterizes the office’s response as: “‘We’re just not going to do it — we’re going wait until there is legislation.'”
That was particularly disappointing for two reasons. First, as the minority leader, Schumer had a larger budget than most offices and, second, Vera says, Schumer was resisting, rather than leading a trend among his party: by May of 2018, the share of Democrats in the Senate who paid their interns had almost doubled from the previous year.
In July, Pay Our Interns successfully lobbied the senators to include $5 million for Senate offices to compensate their interns as part of Senate appropriations. The money each office receives varies based on a formula that takes the lawmaker’s home state into account. In October, $65,000 was earmarked for intern pay to each of the the offices of New York senators Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (who has also faced criticism for not paying her interns). Which is why it was so galling when Vera saw the posting for Schumer’s office. “If your reasoning was I’m going to wait for legislation, well, legislation passed,” Vera says. “The president signed it. What is your excuse now? Is it that you simply don’t care about this issue?”
Come January, Schumer’s next interns will be paid.