Challenging D.C.'s Tradition Of Unpaid Government Internships The White House and other government agencies are not required to follow the Fair Labor Standards Act when it comes to paying interns. Many interns struggle to survive in the nation's capital.

Challenging D.C.'s Tradition Of Unpaid Government Internships

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When President-elect Donald Trump goes to the White House in January, so will some new White House interns. NPR's Parth Shah reports they will not be paid.

PARTH SHAH, BYLINE: The White House opens its doors every year to dozens of bright-eyed interns. They're just a tiny fraction of the thousands of young adults that make the nation's capital their temporary home for the duration of their unpaid government internship.

CARLOS VERA: If America runs on Dunkin' Donuts, D.C. runs on unpaid internships.

SHAH: That's Carlos Vera. He interned at the White House two years ago.

VERA: For any person that loves politics, it's a dream being at the White House. And then once I was in that other side, I realized it's not as glamorous as sometimes you think.

SHAH: Interns are expected to work at least 9 a.m. to 6 p.m, Monday through Friday - 40-plus hours a week with no pay. Vera says work was fulfilling. But while he was living on a tight budget, some of his peers were much more relaxed.

VERA: You know, being with kids that they're like, oh, yeah, my dad's the vice president of Wal-Mart. So, yeah, at that point, I was like, I think I've done enough unpaid internships.

SHAH: So Vera started a campaign called Pay Our Interns. Their guiding principle - how much money your parents make shouldn't keep you from getting work experience. It's something that hits close to home for Vera.

VERA: One thing that the White House required is you had to bring in a suit every day, and that's something that they don't think about. Like, suits cost a lot of money. So my dad, my two aunts and my uncle had to all pitch in money so I could just buy one suit.

SHAH: There are federal laws that regulate unpaid internships. If a company wants to have unpaid interns, they have to treat them like students. They shouldn't be doing the work of paid employees. Those rules, however, don't apply to government agencies.

REYNOLDS GRAVES: You cannot put a price on the knowledge you obtain from an unpaid internship in these marble hallways, whether it's Capitol Hill or the White House.

SHAH: Reynolds Graves is a lobbyist in Boston. He was a White House intern in 2011, and he's done plenty of other unpaid internships, too. He says they're a rite of passage. He worked part-time and dipped into savings to get by.

GRAVES: Maybe you've got to bus tables after work. You know, everyone else gets off of work. You don't get to get to go hang out. You bus tables. That's fine. There's no shame in that, and I think that would even build more grit.

SHAH: Graves says, yes, people from poorer families are at a disadvantage. But he doesn't think the burden of paying interns should be on the government.

GRAVES: I'm more of a bigger fan of, when it comes to something like this, more of a public-private partnership.

SHAH: Graves says interns can seek out grants. That's what Ermolande Jean-Simon did when she was a White House intern. She got a $5,000 stipend from her alma mater, Boston University. But living in D.C, it's expensive. Even with that money, she still had to rely on family and friends to help her get by. We spoke via Skype.

ERMOLANDE JEAN-SIMON: Without that kind of support, like, I don't think I would have been able to even do the internship.

VERA: People shouldn't be precluded from starting a career in public service based on their socio-economic status. You know, that's so anti-American in many ways.

SHAH: Carlos Vera says his campaign is keeping a close eye on government agencies that don't pay their interns. As new elected officials come in, Pay Our Interns will be working to make intern wages a priority. Parth Shah, NPR News, Washington.

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