Most internships last a few months, and if the intern is lucky, maybe it leads to a job offer or at least a few good lasting connections. But for Carlos Mark Vera, his Hill internship, in a way, lasted years and changed his life.
After seven years leading Pay Our Interns, the small but mighty advocacy group for the lowest rung of the organizational chart, Vera is leaving to take another job. His departure is the end of an era for Pay Our Interns, but not an end of the group, which he co-founded with Guillermo Creamer Jr. in 2016 after their own compensation-free stints on the Hill.
Creamer is taking over as interim director with a goal of hiring a permanent replacement early next year.
The pay-your-dues culture around unpaid internships makes it harder for poorer kids to get ahead, which disproportionately affects minorities. On average, Black families have less than 15 percent the wealth of white families, while Hispanic families average less than 20 percent.
That barrier to entry has knock-on effects for the composition of congressional staff, given how many high-powered aides got their start as lowly interns: Congressional staffers aren’t as diverse as the nation they serve.
The group started with Vera (working a second job as a server), Creamer (working night shifts at FEMA) and an intern (who, naturally, was paid). They began their campaign in the Senate, emailing 60 offices. “I think three got back to us,” Vera said.
At the time, very few offices offered paid internships. One that did was Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, the Senate’s lone democratic socialist. Another was Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, representing the other end of the ideological spectrum. Sanders’ office told the group that intern pay was a matter of equity, while Inhofe’s said it was a matter of recruiting and rewarding hard workers.
That was the group’s “aha moment,” Vera said. As Pay Our Interns started to gather information on how each office ran their internship programs, they tailored their pitches to their audiences. Democrats were reminded how hypocritical they looked to advocate for increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 while not paying some of their own staff, while Republicans heard how paying interns improved productivity and allowed working-class conservative kids, not just the scions of wealthy donors, get a start in politics.
And while the group wasn’t opposed to publicly naming and shaming the stingiest members of Congress, they worked behind the scenes with offices to suggest solutions.
The group scored its largest victory in 2018, when Congress passed legislation that allocated $20,000 to each House office and an average of $50,000 per Senate office for D.C. intern stipends. In 2021, the House started allocating funds to pay interns who work for committees as well.
In an audit of internship programs for the early part of the 116th Congress, the group found that the new wages weren’t yet having a big impact on diversity: 76 percent of paid congressional interns were white, compared to just 52 percent of the national undergraduate population.
While the group still has unrealized goals on the Hill — like dedicated funding for Senate committee interns — it’s turning its focus away from the Capitol.
“We will continue to do studies, but on top of that, we will launch next year a subsection of the organization that is an actual resource, that is tangible, for employers,” said Creamer, to help them set up meaningful internship programs that actually serve the goals of developing talent and improving workplace diversity.
But this isn’t your stereotypical Washington nonprofit mission creep, Creamer said. “The mission to pay interns is not complete. We as an organization are striving for an end of unpaid internships, period. It’s not just in Congress, not just in government, it extends beyond those borders.”
The group will also continue its accountability work by producing reports, said Vera. “There needs to be some sort of oversight, and Congress is not going to do that on its own, or the same with the agencies,” he said.
And they hope to push more federal agencies to pay interns, pointing to the Department of Justice, which works with hundreds of unpaid law students every year.
Vera’s next stop will be running a fellowship program at a university in New England, he said. (He asked not to say where because the school hasn’t made its official announcement.)
While Vera is moving on, for Creamer the transition means he’s coming full circle. Once again, he’s helping run Pay Our Interns while juggling a day job and political activities. He spoke with Roll Call from his car Tuesday afternoon in between door-knocking in Worcester, Mass., where he’s running for local office. Creamer said he had another three hours of cajoling potential voters planned that day, and then a Pay Our Interns board meeting after that.
“That’s the type of schedule that I’m working on right now,” he said. “I’m excited to do it. I’m young. I’m 29. If I can do it now, I might as well do it.”