News & Politics

Here’s How a 24-Year-Old Former House Intern Finally Got Congress to Pay Its Interns

Carlos Mark Vera's non-profit, Pay Our Interns, hit one of its major policy goals before its second birthday.

Photograph via iStock.

DC is populated in part by a rotating cast of interns, blazer-outfitted, ambitious, and all too often, unpaid. For Congressional interns, that changed Thursday, when the House followed the Senate and passed a “minibus” spending bill that allocated $13.8 million for interns’ salaries in both chambers. The bill should pass into law soon: The White House says “President Trump looks forward to signing this legislation.” One person you can thank for securing intern pay is former Capitol Hill intern Carlos Mark Vera, the 24-year-old founder of Pay Our Interns, a fledgling advocacy group that helped get this legislation from op-ed fodder to ready-to-sign law.

Vera’s advocacy work stems from firsthand experience of the barriers to entry unpaid internships present to students from low-income backgrounds. He remembers struggling not to fall asleep during his 2012 internship at Rep. Joe Baca’s office because his course load and part-time front desk job at American University didn’t leave much time for rest, or the time he and other congressional interns were swapping stories about their three day weekends and one peer casually mentioned having flown to Aspen. Two years later, Vera landed an internship at the White House, which he describes in triumphant terms: “I’ve made it from the floor of public housing to the White House.” But since he didn’t have a suit to wear to work, his parents, aunt, and uncle back in Southern California pooled money to buy him one from JCPenney.

Do a quick Google search, and you’ll stumble upon countless articles detailing the lengths some unpaid interns go to make ends meet in this pricey city, from after-hours jobs to forgoing dinner to afford Metro fare. “We’re making something mandatory to get your foot in the door, but it’s very expensive,” Vera says. For others, the cost of the résumé-buffing internship proves prohibitive altogether. It is, as Michelle Cottle wrote in the Atlantic, “fundamentally elitist.”

In the fall of 2016, Vera quit his job at Van Jones’s communications firm Megaphone Strategies, “much to the displeasure of my family,” he says, and founded Pay Our Interns. He posted a vague status on Facebook asking for others to share their unpaid internship stories with him, and Guillermo Creamer Jr., who’d also attended American, responded. Creamer became Pay Our Interns’ part-time chief-of-staff, working alongside Vera, the only full-time employee.

From there, Vera started meeting with congressional offices, like those of Senators Marco Rubio and James Inhofe. Soon, he realized that he needed to collect data to bolster his argument, so he and a (paid, of course) intern co-wrote a report, “Experience Doesn’t Pay the Bills,” which detailed the members of Congress who paid their interns and got picked up by HuffPost. One counterintuitive tidbit from it? Only 3.6 percent of House and 31 percent of Senate Democrats, despite their pro-labor bona fides, paid their interns. Vera says that number was even lower when he started gathering data, but offices changed course as his research progressed. As he reached out to aides shortly before the report’s publication, one relatively high-profile Democratic senator’s office reached out with a request, Vera says: “Give us an hour.” (Vera did not disclose which lawmaker this was, but three Democratic senators who are listed in the report as having “pledged to start paying” are Catherine Cortez Mastro, Ron Wyden, and Kamala Harris.)

Vera worked long days, rising at 4 or 5 AM and working on the Hill until 5:30 or 6 PM, after which he’d head to Open City in Woodley Park, where he worked as a server. He started winning allies, like Maryland senator Chris Van Hollen (Vera recalls a February 2017 Democratic fundraiser he spoke at, followed by Van Hollen, who pledged, in front of the room, to start paying his own interns. “Not only did he follow through, he pushed the [appropriations] committee to research,” Vera says). He also recruited the help of consulting firm D&P Creative Strategies, whose CEO had worked as a paid congressional intern under the erstwhile LBJ internship program (which funded internships from 1974 to 1994), to garner support in the House beginning in late 2017. But with politics so polarized, Vera says, Pay Our Interns was playing the long game and aiming to get all congressional interns paid by 2021.

That’s not to say that there weren’t moments where the momentum stalled. After Vera wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, Rep. Scott Peters’s office offered to partner with Pay Our Interns on legislation to remove the employee cap on House members’ DC offices, which limits them to a roster of 18 paid staffers, but the measure was never released.

Then, in April of this year, came “the game changer,” says Vera. The operating budget for Senate offices increased by around $50 million, so Pay Our Interns started sending letters to senators who didn’t offer paid internships pushing them to use the extra dollars to do so. Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii was already on board with the mission and helped co-author legislation. On April 20, Pay Our Interns’ initiative hit lawmakers’ stoops via the front page of Roll Call.

From there, interest swelled. Senators Cory Booker, Bob Menendez, and Michael Bennet, among others, started offering paid internships, meaning that by the beginning of the summer, half of the Senate Democratic caucus paid their interns, up from 25 percent when Vera had kicked off his research and on par with the 51 percent of Republican senators who’d offered paid internships in his 2017 report. Vera, by way of a connection he’d made at a networking event for the Latinx community, persuaded Peck Madigan Jones, a lobbying firm that has represented Deutsche Bank Securities and Spotify, to do pro-bono work on Pay Our Interns’ behalf in the Senate.

By June, the push include intern pay in this year’s government funding had become a bipartisan effort, with Senator Lisa Murkowski signing on first. (In general, Vera says, funding interns has proven to be an across-the-aisle endeavor: “We saw offices that didn’t really talk talking to each other on this issue.”) One week later, Senator Steve Daines, who chairs the Legislative Branch subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, included the proposed amendment in a “manager’s package” of tweaks to the funding bill. The addition passed unanimously, designating $5 million dollars to interns’ salaries (that sum will be divided between offices according to state population).

This “extremely surreal” moment for Vera preceded another. He hadn’t expected to make much progress with the House this summer, he says, because the legislative subcommittee had already approved their budget. As August gave way to September, he got word that subcommittee chairman Jeff Fortenberry, a Nebraska Republican, might be amenable to adding language about funding interns. On September 5, Vera got a text from a staffer: intern pay was going to be included in the spending package. It wasn’t $5 million, like the Senate. It was more: $8.8 million, with each office receiving $20,000. Better yet, Vera says, these paid interns wouldn’t count toward offices’ total employee caps.

The money won’t necessarily be released once the minibus gets signed—offices need to determine how, exactly, they want to distribute it among hires—but Vera says it will mark the start of a more diverse intern pool, both in terms of socioeconomic status and race. When the DNC made good on its pledge to, like the RNC, offer interns a stipend this January, the proportion of non-white interns jumped from 18 percent to 42 percent. According to the New York Times, only 13.7 percent of “top staff” in the House and 7.1 percent in the Senate were people of color. An internship, says Vera, offers an “entry point to this entire ecosystem.”

In fewer than two years since Vera founded Pay Our Interns, the fledgling organization has achieved one of its principal policy goals. What’s next? They’ll assist congressional offices with implementing paid internship programs now that they have the cash. Fundraising and expansion, of course (at the moment, the team consists of Vera; Creamer, who started getting a salary this February; a paid intern from UC Berkeley; and two men who help with communications on top of their day jobs). Pay Our Interns wants to create a webinar that walks students through the internship application process and then offer them guidance once they arrive in DC. When it comes to the local community, the nonprofit plans to help students at University of the District of Columbia apply to Hill internships. Vera’s still striving for his lofty, big-picture goal: “Long term, we’re trying to get every intern paid,” he says.

Editorial Fellow