Democrats who insisted on minimum-wage laws refuse to pay interns

Paul Conner Executive Editor
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As President Obama’s Labor Department considers cracking down on private businesses that reward interns with credit rather than cash, Capitol Hill teems with unpaid interns who keep lawmakers’ offices running.

Interns perform a variety of important office tasks, including answering phones, leading constituent tours, and running errands. Many receive academic credit for their work as a part of their undergraduate or graduate studies, according to staff officials.

But top-ranking congressional Democrats, including those who pushed hard for legislation that raised the minimum wage in 2007, say they’re still comfortable with not paying interns who work in their offices.

Sen. John Kerry, who supported incrementally raising the minimum wage from $5.15 in 2007 to $7.25 in 2009, benefits directly from labor provided by unpaid interns.

“It’s no secret that good wages result in increased productivity, ultimately improving a firm’s bottom line and economic development in their community,” Kerry said in a 2007 press release. “In fact, the last time Congress raised the minimum wage, our country experienced the strongest economic growth in decades.”

A Kerry staffer insisted that internships are an invaluable experience for those who volunteer for the positions.

“I believe internship is an experience that comes before employment,” said Kerry spokeswoman Whitney Smith. “I was an intern here, and I had an incredible experience, and it led me to the job I have today.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also strongly supported the 2007 minimum wage bill bill.

“It is wrong to have millions of Americans working full-time and year-round and still living in poverty,” Pelosi said at the time.

Interns in the press office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi work as many as 32 hours per week, according to Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly.

“They know going into this that this is an internship,” Daly said. “They are doing this to get experience with how things work on the Hill, to see how Washington works, and to be a part of it. They really enjoy it.”

Nathan White, the press secretary for Rep. Dennis Kucinich, told The Daily Caller that it is the policy of his office to not discuss the terms of their internship program. But the congressman’s Web site provides some details.

“By working in a congressional office, you will be exposed to the inner workings of legislative government and the procedures of a congressional office,” the site reads. “All internships are unpaid.”

Daly said he believes that comparing internships to paid positions is misguided.

“I don’t think it’s the same thing,” Daly said. “Almost all of [the interns] are in school full-time, and this is part of their requirement to have an internship. Often I get letters afterwards, and they tell us how helpful it was and how much they liked it.”

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that officials in Oregon and California are cracking down on employers who violate minimum wage laws.

“Some of my friends can’t take these internships and spend a summer without making any money because they have to help pay for their own tuition or help their families with finances,” one unpaid intern said in the article.

The cost of living in the District of Columbia last year was the fourth-highest in the country among major metropolitan areas, according to the ACCRA Cost of Living Index. Housing on Capitol Hill often tops $1,000 per month.

“We’re trying to offer a strong opportunity to the folks back in Massachusetts and across the country who are interested in public service,” said Kerry spokeswoman Whitney Smith. “They get a rich experience here that enhances their work.”