In 2018, Congress appropriated funds to pay its interns. Each House office gets $20,000 a year to pay its interns, and each Senate office gets about $50,000 to pay its interns. Sadly, the money comes with little guidance about how to use the funds. Some offices pay one full-time intern a small stipend that eats up the entire intern budget. Others hire several interns and split the funds among so many people that nobody makes a living wage. Not All paid internships are created equal. Here are some things to look out for when considering a paid internship in a congressional office.
1. Know your salary before accepting an offer: Do not assume that just because an office advertises a paid position that the office pays a living wage. Before accepting an internship offer, ask your intern coordinator exactly how much money you will make. Some offices pay interns $100 per month and others pay close to $1,400. There is no shame in declining an offer if you do not feel comfortable with your salary.
2. Know your intern cohort’s salary: You will likely work with a few other interns in your office. Find out if the other interns are paid before accepting an offer. Paying one person and not others for doing the same job will negatively impact the office dynamic. Consider whether you want to work for an office that differentiates pay this way before accepting an offer.
3. Know your financial limits: Take an honest look at your finances. Can you afford to live in a city with a high cost of living while not making any income? Do you have time to work a part-time job to subsidize your unpaid internship? Do you have a safety net and supportive family to bail you out of financial trouble? Reconsider taking an unpaid or low-paying internship if these questions make you nervous.
4. Know your disability: Do not forget to take disability-related expenses into account. Working a part-time job to make money may not be possible for some disabled people. Disability-related expenses can also create barriers to working for little or no pay. Take these extra costs into consideration when you negotiate your salary.
5. Know your plans after the internship: Paid internships only last four months. Finding a job on Capitol Hill can take more than a year. If your time on Capitol Hill outlasts your internship, do not be afraid to apply to other paid congressional internship programs. You can internship-hop every four months and still receive a paycheck. Do what you must do to get your money!
6. Know that full-time staff may not make much money: Capitol Hill pays junior staffers an insultingly low wage. Keep this in mind if you decide to complain about your salary. You could still be making more money than your intern coordinator. Always be kind to junior staff members. Their work is vital to the mission of the office, but their paycheck rarely reflects it.
Paid internships are amazing! They give opportunities to hardworking people who otherwise could not afford to come to Capitol Hill. However, even paid internships can come with challenges. Remember to advocate for yourself when discussing salary with your intern coordinator, and respect yourself in every part of the salary negotiation process. This is one of the first things you can do to set yourself up for success as a hilltern.