Unpaid internships are a hallmark of the millennial employment experience, and I despise them. I find that at best, they are a scam to get free labor, and at worst, they lock lower-income young people out of some career paths entirely. I am of the opinion that you should receive a day’s pay for a day’s work.

I’ve been reminded of this because my younger sister, who is a rising junior at the University of Maine, has been an unpaid intern on Democrat Sara Gideon’s U.S. Senate campaign. Because of the pandemic, the interns have been working from home, so I have gotten a front-row view to how much they do.

As you would expect, the interns have been working very hard, phone-banking for hours in the lead-up to the primary. If you got a call from the Sara Gideon campaign reminding you to request an absentee ballot, that call was almost certainly from an unpaid intern, and it might have been from my sister, Virginia. She called Mainers from Kittery to Madawaska (I am not kidding – I remember Madawaska Day very clearly), walking them through the process of requesting their ballots, answering questions about Sara Gideon’s plans and policies and taking a fair amount of verbal abuse over the phone to boot.

She was not paid for any of this.

For the past several months I have been watching the Gideon campaign raise millions and millions of dollars. They are not short on cash. In addition, the Maine Democratic Party’s official platform reads, in part, “we support fairly rewarding the work of all people.” As a registered Maine Democrat, expecting interns to work for free seems unfair to me. In fact, it seemed a bit hypocritical (I know, hypocrisy in politics – what a surprise).

I emailed both the Gideon campaign and the Maine Democratic Party to try to get some answers, but received no response. I also contacted Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ campaign. She pays her interns because, as her spokesperson Kevin Kelley told me, she “believes it helps open the door to opportunity for all students regardless of the financial situation of their family.” I don’t agree with Susan Collins on a lot of issues, but I definitely agree with her on this one.

It’s true that campaigns run on unpaid volunteer work – I’ve been a campaign volunteer myself. The difference between an intern and a volunteer is that interns have requirements – hours to clock in, quotas to make – that volunteers do not. Interns also have more responsibilities, such as running trainings, helping with campaign events, and zipping between different areas of the campaign as necessary, whereas volunteers work fewer hours, have more control over setting their shifts and tend to have lower-level responsibilities, usually making phone calls and knocking on doors.

It’s not that I’m opposed to internships – they can be a valuable experience for everyone involved. In fact, my alma mater, Smith College, requires every student to complete a summer internship before they graduate. But it’s not an unfunded mandate. If the internship is unpaid, Smith College will provide a stipend. Currently, that stipend is $3,000. The funding is available to every single student.

Unpaid internships, on the other hand, lock lower-income people out of career paths. Imagine a similarly ambitious young person who comes from a family that has money. They take an unpaid campaign internship. This leads to connections that enable them to get another unpaid internship when the candidate wins, this time in Washington, D.C., or another expensive city like New York, but it’s OK, the parents can help pay their rent.

The connections and experience from that might allow them to slide right into a low-paid congressional or senatorial staff position. After all, who would you hire – a candidate who spent their summer working (for free) on a Senate campaign or a candidate who spent their summer working at Walmart (because they had to help their family pay rent)? No wonder government works only for the rich. Only rich people can afford to work for free.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @mainemillennial

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