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Low Pay (or No Pay) on Capitol Hill Hits Two New York Democrats

Chuck Schumer and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez faced two sides of the issue

New York Democrats Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez faced realities of low pay and unpaid work on Capitol Hill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New York Democrats Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez faced realities of low pay and unpaid work on Capitol Hill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Updated 12/7/18 at 9:17 a.m. |  New York Democrats faced intern and staff pay issues on Capitol Hill when Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer posted an unpaid internship opening and Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio Cortez talked with staffers moonlighting at a D.C. dive to make ends meet.

Schumer’s office posted an unpaid internship opening on the official site for Senate job opportunities that quickly drew criticism on Twitter.

“Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer’s press office seeks full-time, unpaid interns in Washington, D.C., starting in late December or early January,” read the posting.

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Congress passed spending legislation earlier this year that included $8.8 million to pay interns in the House and $5 million for intern pay in the Senate. The Senate funding is included in the accounts that lawmakers use to pay staff salaries, official travel and office expenses. In the House, the funds will exist in a newly created account for each member office.

One of the goals behind the move towards paying interns is to level the playing field so a broader population can participate. High rents and cost of living in Washington make taking a summer or semester of unpaid work as an intern unfeasible for many students.

Schumer’s office said the unpaid role posting was an error.

“Starting in January, Senator Schumer’s office will offer a stipend to eligible interns,” said his office.

On Sunday, Washington newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got acquainted with one hard reality for many Hill staffers and interns: needing to work another job to make ends meet.

“This week I went to dive spot in DC for some late night food. I chatted up the staff,” the newly-elected congresswoman wrote on Twitter. “SEVERAL bartenders, managers, & servers *currently worked in Senate + House offices.* This is a disgrace. Congress of ALL places should raise MRAs so we can pay staff an actual DC living wage.”

The Members Representational Allowance, or MRA, is the office fund that each House lawmakers is allowed to pay staff salaries, purchase office supplies and equipment, and pay for official travel.

“It is unjust for Congress to budget a living wage for ourselves, yet rely on unpaid interns & underpaid overworked staff just bc Republicans want to make a statement about ‘fiscal responsibility,’” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.

Staff salaries will be examined in the House and Senate in the coming year. Both chambers passed legislation that included a requirement to evaluate how Capitol Hill compensation compares inside and outside Congress. The language became watered down from earlier proposals, which specifically required comparisons among Senate staff, the executive branch and the private sector. It also stripped language that would have required the review to compare state staff compensation within the Senate with respect to gender, race and ethnicity.

Ocasio Cortez intends to pay interns in her congressional office.

Correction 12/7/18 | An earlier version of this article misstated Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s title. He is the Senate minority leader.

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