AOC joins Cárdenas and other top lawmakers in calling on Biden's Labor Department to revolutionize oversight of unpaid internships

·3 min read
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U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) speaks as Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) listen during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on July 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images
  • Lawmakers, including AOC and Ayanna Pressley, are calling for more data on and oversight of unpaid internships.

  • In a letter sent to the Department of Labor, representatives called for the agency to track internships and pay.

  • They're also calling for a campaign to help interns know their rights in the workplace.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Nearly 40 lawmakers are calling on the Department of Labor to track unpaid internships and help crack down on internship violations.

Congressional leaders from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Rep. Ayanna Pressley signed on to a letter organized by Rep. Tony Cárdenas of California and activist group Pay Our Interns. The letter calls on the DOL to enact more reporting requirements around unpaid internships and track them, as well as collect data on intern pay. It's a push to both create greater equity by curbing unpaid positions, and to understand the role that unpaid (and paid) internships play in the economy.

The lawmakers are also calling on the agency to look into ways to more extensively monitor potential unpaid internship violations, and create an awareness campaign on intern rights. The gist of the letter, according to Carlos Mark Vera, the executive director of Pay Our Interns (POI), is "it's time for them to take a more hands-on role when it comes to the internship economy."

Unpaid internships hurt workplace equity efforts

Unpaid internships have emerged as one flashpoint during broader discussions of inequality throughout the past year.

Often seen as a way to get into the door of professional opportunities, unpaid internships can favor those who are able to work without pay - or have access to outside funding and resources. That can exacerbate income inequality, and worsen preexisting wealth gaps. A 2019 analysis from National Association of Colleges and Employers found that students of color were more likely to have unpaid internships; the same was true for female students. A 2016 analysis from Money found that unpaid internships can cost interns $6,000.

"Data shows that internships are increasingly needed for students to learn the skill sets and build the networks they need to reach long-term career goals," Cárdenas said in a statement. "When internships are unpaid, low-income students, especially those of color, are barred from those opportunities."

Cárdenas called the system "fundamentally unfair," and said that more data can help make sure that "federal agencies leverage internships to increase diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in the workforce."

More recently, there's been a political (and, in some cases, bipartisan) appetite to address unpaid roles - an initiative that POI, founded in 2016, has been continually pushing for. In December 2020, the group organized former White House interns to call on then-President-elect Joe Biden to make the position paid. In July 2021, the Biden administration presented a budget request that would fund White House internships.

"Compensating interns is aligned with the Administration's priority of advancing equity, removing barriers to equal opportunity, and attracting top talent that draws from the full diversity of the Nation," a White House official said in a statement to Insider at the time.

Biden also signed an executive order in June that called on the federal government to reduce its reliance on unpaid internships. Now, if the DOL push is successful, the government could provide more oversight, tracking, and awareness for those positions. It's something that would have repercussions beyond just people interning or planning on interning.

"During recessions or this pandemic, the trend that we find, that started in 2008, was you started seeing less paid internships, more unpaid internships, and then employers replacing entry-level jobs with unpaid internships," Vera said. "So we should all care about limiting how many unpaid internships are in this country, because it ends up impacting everyone."

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