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The Plight of the Unpaid Intern

Dylan Matthews of The Washington Post has a story out that touches on a classic Capitol Hill question: Should unpaid internships be illegal?

According to Judge William Pauley of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the answer is yes, if those internships are with for-profit companies and mimicking the work of paid employees.

But are unpaid internships a right of passage? Or just a ferryboat for the elite to the top jobs in the hard-to-breakthrough industries? And — most importantly for Hill Navigator — where would Congress be without the interns?

Matthews quotes Ross Perlin, author of “Intern Nation” who believes that the change in the unpaid intern culture can start in D.C.:

A logical place to start, he says, would be D.C. “Congress has exempted its own interns from fair labor standards act,” he says. “That’s something waiting to be addressed.”


Paid internships exist, too, as do internships through a college or university. Unfortunately, tighter office budgets and the surplus of intern applications to intern spots will still tip the scale in favor of unpaid interns. And even in the Twitter-fast times of today, Congress is usually slow to make a shift in the way it does business.

But take heart: Even a change toward more paid internships can have greater benefits for anyone who wants to break into Capitol Hill.

Here’s why:

  • A paid internship often comes with additional structure and oversight. While Capitol Hill experience is key, so is having an office that can meet your goals and encourage you to grow. If more offices are willing to do this, it will be a better experience for both sides.
  • An unpaid internship often has less strict time requirements, allowing the wannabe-staffer a chance to work a second job if that is the only opportunity available to them.
  • If you are an unpaid intern and the second job is understandably too much, then find a sympathetic office that will help you maximize your time and meet your goal of ultimately landing a job on Capitol Hill. If an office is not willing to be flexible, then find another. If you’re working for free, the least you should be able to receive in return is attention and a plan for how to reach your goals.

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