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Over the past few years, there’s been a growing push for employers to start paying their interns. Unpaid internships are thought to discriminate based on socioeconomic status, and not provide equal opportunity.

The nationwide “pay your interns” campaign has converted a few prominent public entities: the U.S. Senate recently decided to pay its interns, and before that the Democratic National Committee vowed to do the same.

But the movement hasn’t yet reached Philly city government. At least, it hasn’t reached the office of Mayor Jim Kenney.

Year round, Kenney’s office hosts the Mayor’s Internship Program, where participating students can learn firsthand what it’s like to work in the executive branch of local government. It’s most intense during the nine-week summer session, when the program welcomes about 50 interns, all of whom work on daily tasks and research final projects for city departments.

The current minimum wage in Philadelphia is $7.25/hour. But that’s not applicable here. Working 25 hours per week in the summer — or 10 to 15 in the fall and spring — Kenney’s interns earn exactly zero dollars.

Not all departments

This circumstance is not unique to Philly, noted city spokesperson Mike Dunn. New York City and Baltimore offer only unpaid opportunities, he said, while cities like Chicago, San Diego, Dallas and Phoenix offer a mix of paid and unpaid.

Philadelphia falls into that second category. Not all city interns go without pay.

Some departments that provide user-charged services to the general public, such as PHL Airport and Philadelphia Water, are operated as “enterprise funds” — aka in a manner similar to businesses — and are therefore “usually in better position to dedicate funding” to paid internships, Dunn said.

But the Mayor’s Internship Program is the city’s largest, with the most interns of any department. And pays none of them.

Mayoral interns are instead advised to seek academic credit, and told they can look for independent funding from their university or another agency. That approach works sometimes. This summer, the program hosted 10 people who were paid via grants or stipends from outside entities, Dunn said.

But that means the vast majority of this year’s summer interns — 40 in total — were unpaid for their nine weeks of work.

An internal (intern-led) investigation

Jordan Laslett, a senior political science major at Temple, was among the lucky few to find some outside money. He participated in the Mayor’s Internship Program as a paid summer associate, with funding from AmeriCorps.

Without it, Laslett said he wouldn’t have been able to afford to take the internship. In fact, when he first saw the program listed on a careers website, he ignored it.

“I scrolled right by it, because I’m not in the habit of taking unpaid internships,” Laslett told Billy Penn.

Isaac Santiago, also a senior political science major at Temple, interned under Mayor Kenney for free. He had to take a part-time job at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to make it through the summer.

“I enjoyed my overall experience,” Santiago said. “I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and I loved working for the city.”

“But it’s a little frustrating,” he added. “Your friend is interning at a major law firm, an architectural firm, an engineering firm, and they’re getting paid $16 an hour. That helps them with traveling costs, with food. It was hard.”

Laslett decided to explore the issue further. For his final project in the Mayor’s Office, he created a survey to question his fellow interns on their experience taking an unpaid position. Thirty-five out of 50 interns responded, with the following results:

  • Eight received an independent grant/stipend for their work in the Mayor’s Office. 27 did not.
  • 19 worked another job during their internship with the Mayor’s Office. 16 did not.
  • 29 considered not taking the internship due to its lack of pay. Six did not.
  • 30 had to commute to their internship with the Mayor’s Office. Three did not.

[script src=”https://e.infogram.com/js/dist/embed.js?FJM” id=”infogram_0_66a47a12-b951-47f7-943b-9a068d765721″ title=”Did you consider NOT taking this position due to its lack of pay?” type=”text/javascript” /]

At the end of the summer, Laslett presented the results to his supervisors, pleading with them to track down some money to pay interns — or at least offer a travel stipend. Otherwise, he thinks the whole opportunity is unfair.

“What about the disenfranchised student who can’t afford to take an unpaid internship?” Laslett said. “We’re all in a position of privilege. There’s people out there who are better than us, or just as good as us, who can’t be in the position we’re in.

“Being such a progressive city,”  he said, “they need to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to young people in the workforce.”

Got an extra $80,000?

After viewing the presentation, would the Mayor’s Office consider paying its interns? Results are unclear — but probably not.

Kenney’s office will continue to “evaluate funding options to provide paid opportunities,” Dunn said, but they also want to maintain the size of the program to welcome as many interns as possible. So basically, the Mayor’s Internship Program can’t track down the cash to pay all 50 of the interns, and they’re unwilling to cut the program in size.

If the program paid interns minimum wage for a 25-hour work week, it would cost the city $1,631.25 per intern. Covering 50 interns for nine weeks would add up to more than $80k.

Laslett hasn’t yet given up hope. He plans to try to schedule meetings with Mayor Kenney, state representatives and members of City Council to lobby them to fund the program. He’s also the president of the Pennsylvania College Democrats student organization, which he says he’ll use to advocate for paid internships in city government.

“Me, personally, I can’t make anything happen,” Laslett said, “but if I have the support of my organization and some state reps in the city of Philadelphia, people will start to listen.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...