At a time when Democrats are demanding higher pay for low-wage workers, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer appeared to wrong-foot himself when his office advertised a job opening for an unpaid internship.
His staff quickly issued a statement saying that was an error and the position would be paid.
The fast reversal underscored the new reality on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers earlier this year created a new $14 million fund in its budget to finally pay interns. Backers said it was an effort to help would-be interns from poorer families who, unlike their wealthier counterparts, can’t rely on parents to fund their Washington experience.
The move drew resounding praise from worker advocates, but for some, it’s just the first step.
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez this month declared on Twitter that she will pay her interns $15 dollars an hour, matching the rate many on the left say should be the national minimum wage.
Similar commitments soon followed from fellow progressive Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Ro Khanna, who said he was lucky that his parents were able to help fund his internship with The Carter Center in Atlanta he was in college.
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“I always felt really bad for kids whose parents didn’t have that ability,” he said.
Pay Our Interns, an advocacy group, estimated an internship in a major metropolitan city like D.C. can cost $6,000.
“That is why we’ve kept out a lot of folks out of these opportunities,” founder Carlos Vera said. “I believe the person who should get the internship is the one who will work the hardest, not the one who can afford it.”
Congress had been slow to come around to the idea, with Democrats lagging.
A June 2017 report by Pay Our Interns found more than half of Republicans offered paid positions, while only 31 percent of Democrats did. In the House, only 8 percent of Republicans and 3.6 percent of Democrats paid.
A new report is due early next year, but Mr. Vera said it will show substantial improvements, including a surge in Democrats offering pay.
“This is one of the few bipartisan issues that Democrats and Republican generally agree on,” he said. “You should pay people for their work.”
His organization is preparing recommendation guides and fielding questions from members that have already reached out on the best way to adapt payments. They want to ensure members are offering “meaningful payments” rather than small stipends that would barely cover public transportation costs.
How far Congress ends up going could depend on demands from those like Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who challenged the House and Senate to spend more.
“It is unjust for Congress to budget a living wage for ourselves, yet rely on unpaid interns and underpaid overworked staff just [because] Republicans want to make a statement about ‘fiscal responsibility,’ ” she tweeted.
Supporters say they could increase members’ office budgets, which would give them more room to raise low-end staffers’ salaries.
“I don’t think members of Congress ought to be making more, but I think our staff ought to be making more,” Mr. Khanna said.