Philadelphia City Hall Credit: Dan Levy/Billy Penn

Updated Dec. 12

In a change from past procedure, the Philly Mayor’s Office will pay its interns starting in summer 2019.

The administration had faced criticism for previously failing to offer compensation, an issue brought to light by a former intern, reported on by Billy Penn and highlighted in a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial.

Internship program manager Gianna Grossman announced Tuesday afternoon that Mayor Jim Kenney’s office had tracked down enough money to pay its interns year-round, including the 50 interns who work in his office for nine weeks every summer.

They’ll be paid $12.25 an hour — a number that meets the standard for a living wage in Philadelphia. In total, their wages will cost the Mayor’s Office about $150k, per Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Mike Zaccagni.

“One of the drivers of this is making sure we can get as diverse a population as possible,” Zaccagni said. “We think this will help create a program that will provide additional opportunities for a broader spectrum of individuals.”

The announcement came four months after Kenney’s own interns from the summer 2018 session started advocating for the program to pay. Jordan Laslett, a former intern and a senior political science major at Temple, led the charge.

“I’m ecstatic to see this,” Laslett told Billy Penn after hearing about the switch. “Students who can’t financially afford to have unpaid internships don’t have to worry anymore about getting their foot in the door into government agencies.”

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 Mayor’s Internship Program is the city’s largest, with the most interns of any department. Working 25 hours per week in the summer — or 10 to 15 in the fall and spring — Kenney’s interns have consistently earned exactly zero dollars.

In lieu of pay, the interns were instead advised to seek academic credit, and told they could 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, said city spokesperson Mike Dunn.

But that means the vast majority of the summer 2018 interns — 40 in total — were unpaid for their nine weeks of work.

During his stint as a Mayor’s Office intern, Laslett 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.

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 provide unequal 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.

Moving forward, Laslett hopes the Mayor’s Internship Program inspires other cities to pay their interns, too.

“Philadelphia once told us that this wasn’t possible, that there was no money,” Laslett said. “Here we are not even a year later, getting an announcement back that they’re going to pay their interns. If it can happen in this city, it can happen in any city.”

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...