WASHINGTON -- Even as it pushes Congress to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, the Obama administration is resisting calls to pay interns who serve in the White House.
The White House declined multiple opportunities to comment on whether it would rethink its position on not compensating the roughly 300 interns who work there each year. Also met with silence was Stephen Lurie, who elevated the issue in a recent Washington Post op-ed. In it, he told the president: "Unpaid internships contradict your commitments and your economic agenda."
"It is pretty indefensible from a publicity point of view, given the nature of their outreach on a lot of other economic subjects," Lurie said of the lack of a response from the administration, which dates back to April 3. "There is not a huge constituency they have to answer to. Who are they going to piss off by not answering? Right now it is just young people and economic-justice advocates."
With the Senate set to vote this week on minimum wage legislation, however, the politics of unpaid internships may get a little trickier for the administration. Already there is a lively ethical debate surrounding the practice, one that the White House has not been immune to. Previous stories have taken it to task for its intern policy, though the White House does not hide the fact from applicants that the positions are unpaid.
The Obama administration has been rolling out workplace mandates on federal contractors via executive order, such as a new minimum wage of $10.10 for workers employed under contracts. The logic behind such orders is that the federal government should lead by example and not sanction low-road labor practices, even if it will end up costing taxpayers a little more money.
Maurice Pianko, a New York attorney who's led lawsuits on behalf of unpaid interns, said he believes the Obama administration has been strong on worker issues but should consider reevaluating its policy on internships. Having unpaid interns undermines the concept of a meritocracy when only certain applicants can afford to spend a few months without income in one of the most expensive cities in the country, Pianko said. The internships, he noted, already tend to go to the well-connected as it is.
"Even if they were to get paid, it would be hard to get an internship at the White House. But because it is unpaid, those who can't afford to work for free could never have the opportunity," Pianko said. "And it is a tremendous opportunity."
As for choosing to pay the interns, "It would cost them next to nothing and set a nice precedent," Pianko added, noting that interns could be paid minimum wage.
White House interns typically work full-time, and their duties include conducting research, managing incoming inquiries, attending meetings, writing memos and staffing events.
The president referenced his interns in a recent speech overseas, but he did not mention their pay (or lack thereof) when framing the work they do as both grueling and fulfilling.
"We get White House interns to come in and they work at the White House, and they’re there for six months, and then I usually speak to them at the end of six months," said Obama. "And I always tell them that despite how hard sometimes the world seems to be, and all you see on television is war and conflict and poverty and violence, the truth is that if you had to choose when to be born, not knowing where or who you would be, in all of human history, now would be the time. Because the world is less violent, it is healthier, it is wealthier, it is more tolerant and it offers more opportunity than any time in human history for more people than any time in human history."
There's nothing illegal about the White House offering unpaid internships; government offices and non-profits are exempt from the rules governing interns and payment.
As a result, unpaid internships are common throughout the government and policy circles of Washington, including in Capitol Hill offices. The Employment Policies Institute, an industry-backed group opposed to raising the minimum wage, has taken out ads arguing that the use of unpaid internships by the White House and Democratic officeholders undermines those officials' case for a higher wage floor.
Recent lawsuits surrounding unpaid internships and the discussions they started have persuaded many companies to revamp their policies and set more generous terms for their internship programs. (The Huffington Post pays all of its interns a nominal wage, even if they are receiving college credit.)
Catherine Ruckelshaus, a lawyer with the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, said the rising awareness of how unpaid internships are problematic ought to make a lot of employers squirm, including those at the White House.
"We shouldn't have unpaid workers, that's the bottom line," Ruckelshaus said. "I think it's good that it's making employers of all kinds uncomfortable, because it should."