During my past life at the State Capitol, I had the pleasure to mentor many great interns.
I would host one or two interns at a time, who would work for four months during summer break or during the semester while attending college. My former interns have become legislative chiefs of staff, heads of powerful associations, presidential campaign managers, non-profit leaders, and communications professionals.
But a new campaign by an activist group could make these opportunities for students disappear.
A group called Pay Our Interns says “unpaid internships act as a barrier to the workforce for young people from low-income background” and is urging lawmakers to “create more equitable opportunities for young people by allocating funds toward intern pay.”
A report the group issued in February calls for the allocation of “a minimum of $4.8 million for California State Legislature offices to offer paid internships,” which they said would enable every legislative office to offer 9 internships per year.
The Sacramento Bee took up the cause in a recent hyperbole-filled editorial, writing that not paying Capitol interns will “worsen income inequality, perpetuate existing racial inequities and directly affect social mobility.”
Those advocating for paying interns the minimum wage should be careful what they wish for. The most likely outcome of their campaign will be lawmakers eliminating internship opportunities altogether, rather than spending $5 million annually as demanded.
This would erect new workforce barriers to low-income and minority students – and all students – who are desiring a career in public policy and want a first-hand learning experience in Sacramento.
Private sector and non-profit groups have been grappling with minimum wage requirements for interns in recent years, including PRI.
San Francisco’s minimum wage ordinance requires, for example, “adult and minor employees who work two or more hours per week” to be paid the minimum wage, which rises to $16.32 per hour starting July 1. Years back, this was enough for PRI to decide to no longer accept interns.
A few years back, Rowena Itchon wrote of her experience with a Bay Area college student who inquired about interning at PRI after hearing Sally Pipes give a talk on health care.
“It pained me to tell her,” Itchon wrote, that “the (then) $14-hour minimum wage law in San Francisco put interns beyond our budget.”
“Back-of-the-envelope math showed that if an undergraduate or masters student worked full-time for 10 weeks for PRI, the salary expense would be about $5,600 per intern,” she continued.
“Indeed, salary is just one of our expenses for interns – there are also payroll taxes, IT expenses, and space considerations,” she concluded.
The pay our interns campaign fails to grasp a key point – internships are learning experiences, not jobs.
I would teach my interns about the legislative process and the “dos and don’ts” of media relations for elected officials by giving them real-life assignments that the office needed completed, such as writing press releases or doing legislative research. Knowing that they were students, I spent more time giving interns feedback and explanation – and more leeway to make mistakes. Employees, in contrast, are expected to know what to do from day one, and not make mistakes.
The “pay our interns” push is really part of a larger campaign – including “free college” and wiping out student loan debt – to hand students everything on a silver platter. But this denies them of important life lessons, learning how to juggle school, work and activities while paying the bills.
Ironically, students losing out on internship opportunities due to the minimum wage would be the ultimate lesson in free market economics – another well-intended but costly and unrealistic government mandate denying opportunities for many.
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and director of PRI’s Sacramento office.