Capitol Hill Hypocrites

Study: Lawmakers pushing for minimum wage hikes utilize unpaid labor

Interns with Rep. Dina Titus (D., Nev.) / AP
June 10, 2013

A new study found that 97 percent of lawmakers backing the minimum wage are relying on unpaid interns to help get the bill passed.

The Employment Policies Institute (EPI), a conservative nonprofit organization opposed to an increase in the minimum wage, found that nearly all of the supporters of H.R. 1010, which would increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, have staffers that work long days for no pay.

"It's wildly hypocritical for these legislators to demand a higher wage for entry-level employees but not offer the same to their own employee interns," EPI research director Michael Saltsman said.

EPI obtained the information by researching and inquiring about job availabilities from the minimum wage bill’s 183 congressional co-sponsors. It found that lawmakers do not pay their interns for many of the same reasons that businesses rely on a low minimum wage for entry-level positions.

"These legislators know that mandating more pay for interns would mean fewer internships," Saltsman said. "It's unfortunate that they don't understand that this same dynamic exists for entry-level positions in the private sector."

The Washington Free Beacon reached out to several minimum wage supporters to explain the use of unpaid work at the nation’s Capitol, including the office of Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.), senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee and longtime champion of minimum wage hikes.

Miller committee spokesman Aaron Albright said H.R. 1010 enjoys broad support from the American public and hopes that President Barack Obama’s State of the Union directive to hike the minimum wage to $9 per hour will push it over the top.

When asked how Miller could justify using unpaid interns to help pass the bill through congress, Albright said that the young workers "use [the experience] for school credits" before directing the Free Beacon to Miller’s congressional office.

A Miller office spokesman did not return requests for comment.

Department of Labor regulations state that internships are only exempt from minimum wage and overtime statutes if "is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment" and is set up "for the benefit of the intern."

Congressional interns can earn class credit for their service, but compensation is hard to come by. Many college students take the jobs to get a foot in the door of Capitol Hill. One congressional intern who spoke to Free Beacon on condition of anonymity said that the Hill’s college students are doing a lot more than taking notes in a "classroom environment," as regulations require.

"We work the same hours as anyone else," the intern said. "We’re doing the leg work, but I guess that’s what it takes if you eventually want to get a job."

Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, said that supporters of the minimum wage should put their politics to work in their own offices. He compared the unpaid work to other exemptions in minimum wage laws, including agricultural and domestic workers, adding that the use of free labor limits the job opportunities of adult workers who would require a salary.

"There can be no true minimum wage if it doesn't apply to young people in general, and to interns in particular ... we need broader coverage and better enforcement for people who are hardly covered at all," he said. "Politicians who fail to pay their interns are treating the work of young people as if it's worthless—as well as impacting who can do that work, and the consequences are felt throughout society."

The Obama administration pledged to crack down on the exploitation of young workers in unpaid positions in the first term. Nancy Leppink, the former head of the Labor Department’s division on hourly workers, called such internships illegal in 2010.

"If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law," she said.

The administration not only failed to follow through on Leppink’s pledge but came to tout unpaid work as a solution to curbing youth unemployment. Unpaid internships represented more than 60 percent of the job opportunities offered through a 2012 Department of Labor program aimed at getting young people back to work.

Saltsman does not oppose the use of unpaid interns in business or politics, saying that young workers benefit from the arrangement by gaining real world insight into their career field.

"These legislators have set themselves up as hypocrites by praising the value of entry-level employment in their own offices but penalizing employers who offer similar opportunities in the private sector," he said.

Published under: Congress , Obama Economy