No one should work for free, especially those who can’t afford it in the first place, but that’s what Californian Carlos Mark Vera saw all over when he traveled out East to Washington, D.C., to attend American University. Of all college students in the U.S., 61% have taken an internship while in school. Of those students, 46.5% were unpaid. 

July 27 was National Intern Day and Vera would like nothing more than for every single intern out there to get paid for the work that they do. 

Vera knows firsthand. He himself took a number of jobs – even joining the Army Reserves for some years – to help pay for school AND for working in unpaid internships that gave him a lot of prestige but nothing in his wallet. The nation’s capital is home to the largest number of interns who descend on Washington to work on Capitol Hill, the White House, federal agencies, lobbying firms, and any other organization that keeps the world of politics and policy going. Just like affirmative action programs have been promoted not only as a chance to help students of color – especially from lower income brackets — get the same kind of access to programs and networking as their wealthier counterparts, so do internships. It’s where many get their first real professional work experience and where those important first connections are made that can lead to other opportunities. But it’s hard – nearly impossible in some cases – to be expected to work fulltime just for the experience. 

Experience doesn’t pay the bills, Vera thought, so he set out to do something about that, co-founding along friend and fellow unpaid intern Guillermo Creamer Jr. the group Pay Our Interns in 2016.

“I started Pay Our Interns because from personal experience – three unpaid internships, I worked for free in Congress, the White House, and the European Parliament abroad (in the U.S. office),” Vera tells CALÓ NEWS. “I struggled doing it and noticing my friends in school who were Latino and didn’t do an internship because they couldn’t afford to do an unpaid internship, they couldn’t get jobs because they didn’t have the experience you get from an internship. It was my own personal experiences of working for free. Interning, working 20 hours a week waiting tables, and taking five classes.”

Even then he found time to create Justice for AU Workers, one of the largest student-led labor coalitions in the country that advocates for workers of color. While in school, he spearheaded several social media and grassroots campaigns that led to the creation of a full ride scholarship program for the children of employees of the service company Aramark, one of the first scholarships of its kind in the country.

A recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that students of color are less likely to have paid internships. Researchers surveyed more than 22,000 students from 470 colleges and universities in their Student Survey Report and found that just 10% of all graduating Latino seniors have had internships, compared to 71% of non-Hispanic white students. The study also found that less than Latinos account for less than 8% of students in paid internships.

“Unpaid internships leave out those students who economically can’t pay their own way — it’s deepening economic inequality,” Vera said.
The study also found that among those who have paid internships, 79% are non-Hispanic white students, while just 8% are Latinos. First-generation students make up 22% of the students surveyed and just 19% of paid interns. In addition, Latinos were more likely than any other group to have had no internships by the time they graduated.

Some places offer college credit in lieu of stipends, but Vera says that’s even more problematic because students are basically paying (through tuition) to intern for free. It’s also unworkable for students who can’t afford to take on more tuition debt.

Pay Our Interns came out with their own study, a first-of-its-kind congressional report called Experience Doesn’t Pay the Bills, which listed which members of Congress paid their interns, and those who did not. That report helped get the message out that unpaid internships may be norm but it’s not right. 

Additionally, some groups and organizations require a certain amount of hours – such as student teaching or social work – in order to graduate and they’re not getting any enumeration. 

“And there is little oversight of that. They’re working and not getting paid but (for example in the case of social work) the places are billing Medicare and Medicaid. It’s not fair,” Vera says.

 According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, Latinos are the least likely to have paid internships or even internships at all. 

“That matters because in today’s job market, employers want you to have two things: the credential, the degree, and then the experience, which you get through internships. Internships signal to employers that you’re ready to be hired and they serve as a vehicle to social mobility. Unfortunately Latinos in college are more likely to be working side jobs as servers, cashiers, the kind of jobs just to make ends meet in college, at the expense of not interning,” says Vera. “The problem is they’ll graduate and don’t have the networks as their white counterparts, they didn’t get them through internships and they don’t have experience in what they studied. What ends up happening is we’re creating glass ceilings for Latinos. Ultimately many of us don’t come from families that have those connections and built-in networks. Internships help. This is particularly important for Latinos.”

In the few short years Pay Our Interns has been in operation, Vera and his team have managed to successfully lobby for paid internships on Capitol Hill, the White House, and the State Department. Vera is working on getting other federal agencies to pay up. One particular irony is the U.S. Labor Department which until recently was headed by a former labor union leader but is one of the agencies with unpaid internships. 

Pay Our Interns has been circulating a letter asking the Labor Department to not only pay its own interns but also eliminate an exemption to the Fair Labor Standards act that classifies unpaid workers as “volunteers” not eligible for protection afforded to paid workers. The act sets rules about minimum wage and overtime, among other considerations. Pay Our Interns is also asking for the elimination of the Fair Labor Standards Act exemption for nonprofit organizations.

“Some of these nonprofits have budgets of tens of millions of dollars, and they don’t pay their interns,” Vera says adding, “In the case of unpaid interns, if you’re not paid, you’re not an employee, so you’re not covered by any of those worker protections.” Vera mentions that Pay Our Interns is also asking the Labor Department and its Bureau of Labor Statistics to track and collect data about interns and internships.

Vera, who was born in Colombia and raised in Victorville, California, says that while Pay Our Interns has been relatively successful in the nation’s capital, the opposite is true in California. While more than 90% of internships in the U.S. House and Senate are paid, just 10% of Assembly offices in Sacramento pay their interns, and none do in the state Senate. This from a state that is considered one of the most progressive in the country, says Vera, adding that a recent bill creating paid internships in the legislature died in committee despite Pay Our Interns’ work to get attention on the issue.

“It seems like legislators in California want to pass (this type of legislation) and they say they’re pro-labor and support a living wage, but they also say screw the interns. I think that’s hypocritical,” Vera says explaining that it’s not just a problem in Sacramento.

“There’s a very deep culture of unpaid internships across California. Just took at Hollywood. And that leaves many of us out.”

While Vera says that it seems easier to promote paid internships in the nation’s capital city than in California’s state capital city, Vera asserts that it actually inspires him to keep working and getting others to join in. 

“One of the ripple effects of our work is many more places are offering paid internships, including nonprofits. Students are actually organizing, such as Green2.0 for example, they work on environmental justice work. Others too. One of the reasons that (professional) work is so homogeneous is unpaid internships and low salaries to begin with, so we support groups doing this kind of work (pushing for paid internships).

Vera has been recognized for his work and has received numerous awards and commendations, including an upcoming “Rising Start Award from the Latino Leaders Network, which recently honored former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, and former State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. 

“But part of this issue is that there isn’t much oversight and regulation over internships in this country,” Vera tells CALÓ NEWS, adding that it’s hard to track when you don’t know the exact numbers. “If you can’t quantify something, how do you know how to fix it? It’s like the Wild West out there. I think long-term we need to create better parameters around internships.”

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Raised in Puerto Rico, Patricia Guadalupe is a bilingual multimedia journalist based in Washington, D.C., covering the capital for both English and Spanish-language media outlets. She is also an adjunct...