Exploitation or opportunity? California’s Capitol employs army of unpaid interns

The California State Capitol building from the Tower Bridge in Sacramento on Sunday, September 29, 2013. Many Capitol offices employ unpaid interns.
The California State Capitol building from the Tower Bridge in Sacramento on Sunday, September 29, 2013. Many Capitol offices employ unpaid interns. RBenton@sacbee.com

Q: How are your elected officials answering their many phone calls?

A: Probably with the help of an unpaid intern. Or maybe 50 of them.

It’s summer in Sacramento, and an army of interns is answering phones, writing news releases and performing other tasks in the state Capitol. They’re also working at various nonprofits and for-profit firms around town. Such internships – many unpaid, others paying barely minimum wage – have become standard for college students and recent graduates, but they’ve also drawn criticism from those who say they exploit young people or – conversely – that they’re unfair to people who don’t have family resources and can’t afford to work for free while potentially paying thousands of dollars for rent and living expenses.

Current and former interns who spoke to The Bee said they found their unpaid positions rewarding, citing the same benefits – both skills and connections – that employers promise. But some argued that just because offices can often hire free interns without breaking the law doesn’t mean they should.

“You’ll hear, well, they’re not there to get paid, they’re there to get experience,” said Carlos Vera, a recent American University graduate who founded the advocacy group Pay Our Interns, recalling his own struggle to get by on a prestigious – but wageless – White House position.

“Experience is awesome, but it isn’t going to pay your rent, your suits, your food or the transportation you’re going to need,” Vera said.

It’s impossible to know just how many interns are working without pay in Sacramento this summer. Joe DeAnda, a spokesman for the California human resources agency, CalHR, said there are no centralized numbers tracking unpaid internships with the state.

While not all of California’s 80 Assembly members and 40 state senators have interns in their Capitol offices, Kevin Liao, press secretary for California Assembly speaker Anthony Rendon, estimated that there is an average of one intern for each office. The state Senate currently pays a few statewide. The Assembly’s most recent public payroll from the end of May lists five paid interns working for members in the Capitol, plus 12 in other offices and throughout the state. The vast majority are unpaid, although some may get grant money from outside sources.

The governor, members of Congress and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris – who has 53 interns right now – all advertise unpaid internships in Sacramento as well.

A variety of opportunities for funding do exist: In the political sphere, to name a few, are UC Berkeley’s Cal-in-Sacramento fellowship, Fresno State’s legislative intern program and Sacramento State’s Capital Fellows program, which places 64 college graduates throughout the state’s legislative, executive and judicial branches each year.

Taylor Valmores, a college graduate and veteran of political internships in both Sacramento and D.C., is a grateful recipient of those kinds of opportunities. Even so, he lamented that paying interns is often “just not a priority.”

“A lot of people really just underestimate how having a paid internships program could have an impact on bringing different perspectives and (giving) access to minority groups,” he said.

Valmores, for example, would not have been able to afford his D.C. internship with ex-California Congressman Mike Honda if not for a stipend he got through an outside group. Neither would most of his eight housemates, who received funding from the same program.

Valmores said he was “lucky” to always end up in offices that were eager to accommodate his interests and give him special projects.

Not all internships have that educational emphasis, Valmores said.

“A lot of them will just be, like, answering phones all day,” he said of government interns. “Some offices will do maybe weekly check-ins, and that’s about it.”

A fact sheet issued by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2010 states that private, for-profit employers can only hire unpaid interns if they meet six criteria. The internship must be for the benefit of the intern and similar to “training which would be given in an educational environment.” It should place interns under close supervision, rather than allowing them to displace regular staff. All parties should understand that there is no pay and that the internship will not necessarily turn into a job. And the employer should get “no immediate advantage” from the intern’s work – in fact, the Department of Labor says, the intern might be a hindrance.

Unpaid internships in the public or nonprofit sectors are “generally permissible,” according the 2010 fact sheet.

In 2015, a federal Court of Appeals in New York diluted the Department of Labor’s six standards, ruling that unpaid positions are only problematic if the employer benefits more than the intern.

Still, California’s handbook on state internships (all unpaid) includes the six criteria, and NonProfit PRO, which provides resources for nonprofits on management, recommends in an online article that even the groups it serves should err on the side of safety and heed them.

Congress, on the other hand, has dispelled any ambiguity around its unpaid internships in its Congressional Accountability Act, which specifies that Congressional employees guaranteed at least minimum wage “shall not include an intern.”

A survey of employers by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 42 percent of interns this summer are unpaid. That’s less than the 49 percent that were unpaid in 2011, the survey’s first year.

Speaking about the California Capitol in particular, Liao said organizations that provide stipends to students in government offices are “upping their game.” The Asian Pacific Islander Capitol Association, for example, is paying stipends to six students this summer, up from three last year. This summer’s stipend is $6,500 for 10 weeks, up from $1,500 in years past.

According to Pay Our Interns, unpaid positions in the U.S. Congress have risen since the mid-90s, when a government program that funded nearly 300 congressional interns ended.

But group founder Vera was optimistic about recent developments, saying that four senators – including California’s Harris – have pledged to add at least one paid internship (Harris’ office did not confirm this outright, but said over email that it is “continuing to develop ways to ensure these opportunities are open for all young people”).

Studies show unpaid internships are no guarantee of a paying job out of college. A 2015 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 41 percent of students with unpaid internship experience got a job offer leading up to graduation, just a bit higher than the 36 percent of students who got offers without any internships at all.

However, students and employers who spoke to The Bee said they still see unpaid positions as a stepping stone to a salary: One intern got his job through a connection from an internship, and Liao said Speaker Rendon’s office has helped several former interns get jobs in the Capitol. Another student who interned part-time at a media company in Sacramento said the most valuable part of his job was getting to network with people at other publications. He’s optimistic it will pay off.

The downside? He had to quit his regular job to meet the internship’s hours-per-week requirement.

“I had no money the entire time I was there,” said the student, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of hurting his job prospects. “If I wasn’t living with my parents, I don’t think I would have taken it.”

He understood why a small company in a struggling field couldn’t afford to pay interns. “But if it’s big industry, then that’s more questionable,” he said.

One college student and Sacramento native finally got a paying position in D.C. this summer after after three wage-free stints in politicians’ offices.

“A lot of times you cannot get a job on (Capitol) Hill if you don’t have Hill experience, and the same thing is true in Sacramento. And often the only entry-level jobs are unpaid,” said the student, who requested anonymity out of concern for future employers’ perceptions of him.

He got his start interning 10 hours a week for local Congressman Ami Bera in high school; he didn’t mind the lack of pay, likening his part-time, flexible-hours position to volunteering.

“It seemed like a fair deal for me to be able to meet the Congressman even, especially just committing that low-level amount of time,” he said.

By his telling, unpaid interns are a necessity for some politicians’ operations: Without their help to man phones, guide tours and process constituents’ requests, he said, bigger offices would be swamped.

He saw that reliance on interns firsthand working this spring for Senator Harris, who serves nearly 40 million people and has five offices throughout California as well as one in Washington, D.C.

“There’s no physical way they would be able to answer all of those phone calls,” he said. “There isn’t enough staff to do that without interns right now.”

Are unpaid positions fair to young people? That depends on whether internships emphasize the development of the student, said California Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, a Republican from Dublin. She argued that her interns – typically eight or nine unpaid high school and college students over the summer, mostly in her district office – are getting both exposure to public service and the training to be “ready for a paid position someday.” She said that her office works hard to tailor internships based on what students want to learn.

“I actually feel it’s a duty and responsibility to have a substantive skills-building internship for young students in my district,” she said.

Discussing budget limitations, Baker noted that elected officials have to be “very careful, diligent stewards of every taxpayer penny.”

Greg Wellman, past president and board member at the Sacramento Public Relations Association, also cited budget constraints – a particular concern for nonprofits – as the reason his group’s internships are unpaid. The association helps students get academic credit for their work and seeks above all to advance students’ careers, he said, giving them “exposure to people that are higher up in the PR world that could be invaluable.”

Critics of unpaid internships, like Vera, recognize that value.

“A lot of folks just can’t afford it,” Vera said.

Hannah Knowles: 916-321-1141, @KnowlesHannah