Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez set her sights this week on a longtime D.C. issue barely any members of Congress have addressed in the past: the archaic tradition of unpaid internships and refusal to offer paid staffers a living wage. For Carlos Mark Vera, founder and CEO of the nonprofit organization Pay Our Interns, that the congresswoman-elect for New York's 14th District used her political capital to speak on this issue was a refreshing change.
"A lot of constituents think that staffers here in Capitol Hill are eating lobster, when that's just not a fact," Vera told Refinery29. "There are people here that have master's degrees, are $30,000 deep in student debt, and are making $28,000 per year in one of the most expensive cities in the world."
Ocasio-Cortez understands the struggle to make ends meet better than some members of Congress. She comes from a working class background, which is why she made income inequality a core part of her platform in the 2018 midterm election. In fact, less than a year ago, she was still waiting tables and working as a bartender as she ran for office. Now that she's preparing to take her place in Congress, the 29-year-old spoke up against Congress' unpaid internships and low salaries for staffers. Ocasio-Cortez is leading by example: Her chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti confirmed to the Washington Post that her interns will get paid "at least" $15 per hour, the minimum wage in D.C.
In a series of tweets earlier this week, the Democratic socialist talked about meeting several congressional staffers who moonlight as food industry workers because they need to make ends meet. "This is a disgrace. Congress of ALL places should raise MRAs so we can pay staff an actual D.C. living wage," she wrote, referring to the Members' Representational Allowance. The MRA is an operational budget given to members of Congress every session for managing their offices in D.C. and their respective districts. Ocasio-Cortez followed up: "It is unjust for Congress to budget a living wage for ourselves, yet rely on unpaid interns & underpaid overworked staff just [because] Republicans want to make a statement about 'fiscal responsibility.' If that’s the case, they can cut down on staff to pay them well. Or raise the MRA."
In 2017, Mic reported that nearly 90% of the internships offered by members of the U.S. House of Representatives were unpaid. The situation was slightly better (but still bad) in the U.S. Senate, where roughly 52% of senators had unpaid interns at the time. "I took student loans just to afford to work in Congress for free, which is kind of a crazy concept," Audrey Henson, founder and CEO of the nonprofit College to Congress, told Refinery29 of her time at Capitol Hill seven years ago. The program, which she launched after the 2016 presidential election, helps low-income students secure congressional internships and covers the cost of living, including everything from housing and meals to dry-cleaning and supplemental training.
But because paid congressional internships and other ways to level the playing field have been rare for so long, Henson says there's more work to be done. Ocasio-Cortez's support is an added bonus. "Congresswoman-elect Ocasio-Cortez has somewhat of a megaphone, which is why she's bringing this conversation at a national level and that's very exciting," she said. "It can only help speed along the [process] more."
In September, Congress passed a mini-spending package that includes new funding members can use to offer paid internships. The 2019 Legislative Branch bill allocates $8.8 million for the House, which translates to each member having up to $20,000 per calendar year they can use to have paid interns. Meanwhile, senators have been allocated $5 million for paid internships. That money has been available since October 1, but it remains unclear how many congressional representatives are taking advantage of it. While the funds are there, it's not mandatory for Congress to use them.
According to a 2018 analysis by the independent congressional research firm LegiStorm, the median salary for some entry-level staff roles can range from $32,000 to $36,000. In a place like D.C., one of the most expensive cities in the United States, that means congressional staffers often find themselves juggling multiple gigs. Henson herself had to do that: While she was a staff assistant to Ohio GOP Rep. Bill Johnson, she also worked at a bar to supplement her $25,000 salary. "Today’s interns are tomorrow’s staffers," Vera, from Pay Our Interns, said. "We're pushing to get more working class youth in Congress as interns so they [eventually] become staffers. But if they get the position and earn $26,000, we're not doing our job."
One of the victories of the 2018 midterm elections was electing an incoming class of representatives that will make Congress look a bit more like America. Elected officials have the power to decide to pay interns and staffers a living wage, which would open the door for groups that have not had a seat at the table when the most urgent conversations about the nation's future are taking place.
"I want young people, from communities that never saw [Congress] as an opportunity, to know: You need to be here," Vera said. "This is your government as much as anyone else's."