Jessica Padron, a student at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV), is trying to raise $6,500 in the next two weeks in order to subsidize her four month fall internship on the Hill. She raised $3,306 as of Tuesday morning.
Her biggest expense will be housing. According to her campaign’s Web page, Padron estimates that she will need $4,200 for “the most modest accommodations,” given that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Washington hovers around $1,400 a month. She notes that food is also expensive, so “sticking to cooking at home and not eating out will keep costs low.”
According to the Las Vegas Sun, Padron is a first-generation college student, born to a Cuban father and a Mexican mother, and she hopes her internship will enable more minorities like her to enter politics.
Padron’s plight highlights the ways in which unpaid internships often disadvantage low-income and minority students, as many critics have alleged. The Center for Economic and Policy Research concluded that “unpaid internships can reinforce socioeconomic inequalities” because lower income students cannot accept unpaid internships that might lead to future job opportunities.
The Department of Labor’s guidelines for internships state that “unpaid internships in the public sector and for nonprofit charitable organizations, where the intern volunteers without expectation of compensation, are generally permissible.” But many unpaid internships take place in cities with high costs of living, like New York, Washington, DC, and Chicago. This often prevents students without the financial means to support themselves from taking potentially valuable internships, such as Congressional and White House internships, which are unpaid.
In addition to the economic disadvantages they place on low-income students, unpaid internships raise legal and ethical concerns. Interns who are not paid are not considered employees, so they cannot receive legal protection against sexual harassment in the workplace. Without status as an employee, interns are at higher risk for exploitation and can do little to speak out.
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) has proposed a potential solution to the economic hardship of these experiences: award grants to low-income students with unpaid internships, essentially turning them into work-study opportunities.
Others have proposed outlawing the practice altogether, especially given a recent court ruling determining that Fox Searchlight violated minimum wage and overtime laws by using unpaid interns. Yet an outright ban could be difficult to enforce. Unpaid internships are illegal in the United Kingdom, but that did not stop fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s company from employing an intern who was only compensated for lunch and travel costs.