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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez just perfectly summed up the problem with unpaid internships

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

AOC was asked about whether or not interns should be paid and her response was perfect. In fact, can we get the congresswoman’s latest statement printed on a T-shirt please?

Interning is one of the trickiest catch-22s of the workforce. It’s hard to get ahead in your career without an internship, but because most internships are unpaid it’s almost impossible to undertake one if you don’t come from a background of privilege and support.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez knows this. And on National Intern Day in the US, she perfectly summed up the problem with unpaid internships, especially those that reassure their candidates that they are being ‘paid in experience’.

“Experience doesn’t pay the bills,” Ocasio-Cortez quipped.

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She’s right. While the experience that you get through an internship can prove valuable in your career, it’s also equally as important to be paid for the work that you do. 

It’s why representatives in Congress pushed to get $14 million set aside to pay their interns in September last year. “Many believe our work on Capitol Hill is done because Congress appropriated the funds, but these numbers prove that our work is only beginning,” Pay Our Interns co-founder Guillermo Creamer said of the victory. “It is astonishing to see that so many offices have decided not to use any of the $20,000 allocated for intern pay. What is even more alarming is the percentage of offices that provide no information about intern salaries whatsoever.”

For the record, Ocasio-Cortez pays all her interns $15 an hour with benefits. None of her staff members are earning less than $52,000 a year, a move in line with her continued advocacy for Americans to receive a fair living wage. The $52,000 a year salary meant that many staffers received a significant pay increase, including Pagon Marchena who was previously working a seven day week and juggling jobs so that she could work in politics in Washington DC.

Thanks to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) there are minimum wage and overtime rules for anyone who is employed in the US, and that includes interns. 

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Unpaid internships do still occur, but they have to fulfil certain criteria. They have to be similar to training that would be given in an educational environment. They need to be for the benefit of the intern. The intern should not displace paid employees. Both intern and employer knows that it is an unpaid position. The intern is not promised a job at the end of the internship. And the employer must not benefit from the work the intern is doing.

There are exceptions to this, including volunteering for charities, and interning at companies that are exempt from the FLSA. But, essentially, the time for unpaid internships is over. Because as AOC said: “experience doesn’t pay the bills”. 

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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