WASHINGTON — In the past two years, DaQuawn Bruce received news — not once, but twice — that he had dreamed of since middle school. He had been accepted into two competitive internship programs on Capitol Hill, opportunities that swarms of students vie for every year.
But Mr. Bruce, who graduated last month from Carthage College in Wisconsin, had to turn down both of them. The internships were unpaid, and his family in Chicago, which relies solely on his mother’s income, could not afford to send him to Washington to work for nothing.
“By the time I got offers for internships,” he said, “I wasn’t in a place to accept them, no matter how great the opportunities were.”
Now, in a bid to open Washington’s halls of power to more economically diverse students like Mr. Bruce, the Senate has allocated $5 million to compensate all of its interns. The money — approximately $50,000 per Senate office — will become available if it is approved by the House, and then only at the start of the next fiscal year, Oct. 1. But the Senate measure is the first widespread organized congressional effort in two decades to ensure such payments.
For years in Congress, wealthier students have had far greater access to the perks exclusive to interning on the Hill: a networking gold mine of legislators and lobbyists, and experience like conducting research and compiling briefing materials that makes them more attractive job candidates.
Such a system fuels a glaring inequity: Already privileged students are able to access prestigious opportunities that open doors to competitive jobs, leaving their peers who cannot afford to work for free behind.
Critics say unpaid internships have also helped lead to a lack of racial diversity in Congress. A 2015 study found that 93 percent of top Senate staff members were white. In 2010, in the House, 82 percent of chiefs of staff and 77 percent of legislative directors were white.
In recent years, a number of high-profile class-action lawsuits over unpaid internships at companies such as NBCUniversal have grabbed headlines, with the media company paying out a $6.4 million settlement to compensate students who were not paid for their work. Congress, meanwhile, has been able to avoid paying its interns because the legal framework cited in those cases — the Fair Labor Standards Act — provides protections for only employees at for-profit organizations. The government and nonprofit organizations are not required to provide paid internships.
And Congress’s own version of the law, the Congressional Accountability Act, specifically excludes interns from receiving the same benefits, like minimum wage, as government employees.
A 2013 study conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that nearly half of all internships nationwide are uncompensated, with government agencies and nonprofits offering a majority of those positions.
Advocacy groups are now pushing the House to follow the lead of the Senate, which approved a package of spending legislation on Monday that included the intern pay fund.
“Interns do good work in our office, and they should be compensated,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland and a sponsor of the intern pay provision. “We need to make sure that every qualified candidate has the opportunity to intern on the Hill regardless of their financial circumstances.”
The drive by Mr. Van Hollen and the advocacy groups is an attempt to end a well-known and increasingly criticized fact of interning on Capitol Hill: Those who are lucky enough to be offered a competitive congressional internship will most likely lose money in order to accept it.
Research conducted by Pay Our Interns, an advocacy group based in Washington, found last year that just over half of Republican senators compensated their interns, while barely a third of their Democratic peers followed suit. Those statistics were bleaker in the House: 8 percent of Republican representatives and 4 percent of Democrats paid their interns.
Tracking how much interns are paid can be difficult. While some offices pay per hour, others, like that of Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, offer a stipend. Mr. McConnell’s office pays approximately $330 a week. But many Capitol Hill offices that offer paid internships or stipends do not disclose on their websites how much applicants can anticipate being paid. The website of Senator Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, for example, states only that “a limited number of paid positions” are available.
Having to pay for housing, food and transportation — not to mention a professional wardrobe — in a city that is routinely ranked among the top 10 most expensive places to live in the United States can be a deal breaker for students who are unable to work without being paid.
Other students, determined not to let the opportunity to work on the Hill slip away, stretch themselves thin, taking out loans and working 70-hour weeks at second jobs to make ends meet.
“Internships can often be the gateway to working on the Hill, and we need to make that ladder of opportunity available,” Mr. Van Hollen said.
That opportunity eventually came to Mr. Bruce, the Carthage College graduate, through a scholarship from College to Congress, a nonprofit that provides low-income students with a $10,000 stipend. Thanks to that scholarship, he is now working as a summer intern with Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina.
College to Congress was founded in 2016 by Audrey Henson, who experienced firsthand the difficulty of being a low-income student interning on Capitol Hill. In order to accept an internship with Representative Joe L. Barton, Republican of Texas, Ms. Henson took out a $6,500 student loan and got a second job working at a bar near the Senate.
“I didn’t see students like me” interning in Congress, she said. “Most of the people I interned with, their parents were lobbyists or congressmen or journalists.”
That inspired Ms. Henson to start College to Congress, with a long-term goal of opening up the pipelines to diversity on Capitol Hill. “These are the first doors that open,” she said. “That’s why these internships are so important.”
Those opportunities have been largely blocked off to low-income students since 1994, when Congress stopped funding a 20-year-old program that allocated to each House member’s office funds for two-month paid internships. (No such program had existed in the Senate.)
“For the longest time, it’s been understood that with Congress and other very selective internships, they won’t have to worry about compensating because they’ll be flooded with applications,” said David Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston who specializes in employment law with a focus on the intern economy.
But groups like Pay Our Interns, led by Carlos Vera, a former House intern, say they will continue to push House members to allocate funds to pay interns. Mr. Vera said that he is working with Representative Betty McCollum, Democrat of Minnesota and a member of the Appropriations Committee, and that he hopes that funding can be approved within the next year.
The recent legislation “sends a strong message that the Senate is ready to invest in the country’s youth,” Mr. Vera said. “Now, the goal is all of Congress.”
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