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De Blasio Isn't the Only Progessive Politician Who Doesn't Pay Interns

By Gustavo Solis | June 25, 2015 2:03pm
 Mayor Bill de Blasio is one of many elected officials in New York City that use unpaid interns.
Mayor Bill de Blasio is one of many elected officials in New York City that use unpaid interns.
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DNAinfo/Rosa Goldensohn

NEW YORK CITY — While the city’s most progressive politicians call for an increased minimum wage, they routinely use unpaid interns for free labor.

From Congressman Charles Rangel and Borough President Gale Brewer to Public Advocate Letitia James and Mayor Bill de Blasio, elected officials at all levels of government recruit unpaid interns.

“They all call for raising the minimum wage and they are hiring unpaid interns, that seems hypocritical,” said Diana Furchtgott-Roth, author of ‘Disinherited: How Washington Is Betraying America's Young.’ “If they think people should be paid $10.10 instead of $7.25 why are they paying their interns zero?”

The work hours and responsibility vary by internship. Rangel’s internship in Washington D.C. generally runs from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. when Congress is in session.

“[Interns] will be asked to answer phones, run errands, research legislation for the Member and legislative staff attend hearings and briefings and answer constituent letters on various issues before the House,” according to the congressman’s website.

Although they aren’t paid for their work, the interns “gain invaluable work experience.”

Public Advocate Jame’s summer legal internship is for 35 hours of work per week for four weeks. With the city’s current minimum wage of $8.75, interns would earn $1,225 — if they were paid.

The unpaid interns are expected to “conduct research, draft memoranda, interview potential litigants, and conduct fact research into potential claims.”

While litigators have filed class action lawsuits against private media companies like Gawker, Fox Searchlight Pictures, and Conde Nast, most have stayed away from suing government agencies. 

That’s because government agencies play by different rules, according to Maurice Pianko, founder of Pianko Law Group and Intern Justice, which specializes in unpaid internship lawsuits.

“Basically there is a general standard that if it’s a for-profit entity a person cannot work for free,” he said. “When it comes to nonprofits there is more leeway but the government is almost on the lowest level of leeway. There are much less rigid standards.”

Criteria that private employers are required to follow include not displacing regular employees, not gaining an immediate benefit from the intern, provide educational training and experience, according to the state's Department of Labor. 

“The Mayor’s Office internship program is about education," a spokeswoman for the mayor said. "We enforce strict rules to make sure our interns are tasked only with work that enriches their learning experience and bolsters their knowledge of local government.”

About 150 people participate in the Mayor's Office internship, which includes an orientation session and a speaker series with senior administration officials.

Because of the lower standards in the public sector when it comes to working with unpaid interns, litigators have a weaker legal argument when going after the government, Pianko said.

In one of the few cases in which an intern sued a government agency, the intern lost.

In 2006, Jayquan Brown graduated from The New School for Arts and Science, which shared space with Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx. When he couldn't get a job after graduation he returned to Banana Kelly and asked if he could volunteer at the school and beef up his resume.

During three years of working full-time as a "volunteer intern," Brown asked for a staff position. The school cited a tight budget and Brown's lack of higher education as reasons for not being able to hire him, according to the lawsuit.

When he sued in 2012, the judge ruled that he was "a volunteer, not an employee."

Brown was never promised any money, he could've left anytime he wanted, and was never criticized or disciplined when he did not show up so he was not an employee, according to the lawsuit.

Brown's lawyer, Chinyere Okoronkwo, said the decision may leave government agencies off the hook when it come to paying interns.

“Based on the Second Circuit's decision under the Fair Labor Standards Act, governmental agencies may have an out through the volunteer exemption,” she said.

While advocates push for government agencies to level the playing field by paying their unpaid interns, Furchtgott-Roth, believes they should level the playing field by limiting restrictions on the private sector.

“We shouldn’t fix the problem by requiring the Mayor’s Office to pay for internship,” she said. “Of course the Mayors Office understands that if they would had to pay for unpaid interns they would have to hire far fewer interns. They should realize it’s the same in the private sector.”

Young people getting ready from entering the work force need experience to stand out. Studies show the employers focus more on job experience than on a college major, she added.

Given that the unemployment rate for people between 20 and 24 is 10 percent compared to 4.5 percent for people over 25 years old, young people should have the freedom to choose temporary unpaid internships in order to gain work experience, she said.

Congressman Rangel did not reply to questions about their internship policy. Neither did City Councilman Ben Kallos who joins Helen Rosenthal, Andy King and Vanessa Gibson in offering unpaid internships.

A City Council spokesperson did not reply to questions about the Council's internship policy.

Public Advocate James declined to comment.

Borough President Gale Brewer released the following statement.

"Like many other city, state, and federal elected officials, B.P. Brewer is known for recruiting a diverse group of interns to join the office, always as a learning experience. She insists interns have regular access to herself and senior staff, meets with them regularly, and works to ensure they are working directly with staff mentors on substantive projects."