Traditionally, internships were supposed to be non-paying “jobs.” The idea behind this initiative was that the student, or young person, or “intern,” would work for the company, to be sure, but, also, mainly, would learn from on-the-job training. Typically, internships were scheduled during the summer, or the Christmas season, while school breaks were scheduled. Then, after graduation, the student and the firm would have known quite a bit about each other, and, if everything worked out well, there would be an offer of full-time employment after graduation.
But now we learn, to our amazement, that interns are being paid. What is this business of paying a salary, indeed a pretty high one in some cases, for interns? Does it constitute fraud? Not exactly. Rather, this is a gray area. For there is on-the-job training in pretty much all jobs, even those in which the worker asks customers “do you want fries with that?” or pushes a broom. Even in these trades, workers must learn to show up on time, stay until scheduled to leave, get along with bosses, fellow workers, customers, and such. Suffice it to say, non-paid internships were once very popular, and part of this business of now paying for “interns” is likely an attempt to piggyback on this popularity.
Nancy Pelosi was once interviewed by American journalist and documentarian Jan Helfed on the topic of the minimum wage law. You’ll be shocked to learn that she is a fervent supporter. The question arose, did she have (unpaid!) interns in her congressional office?
Yes, of course, she said.
This would constitute good training for them. But Helfeld asked if this practice was consistent with minimum wage legislation. At this point Miss Pelosi abruptly cut off the interview.
“This interview is over,” Pelosi tells Helfeld. “You really made a mistake.”
Helfeld tells Pelosi he’d simply like to discuss the minimum with her. This prompts the Speaker to threaten her questioner with security.
“You’re going to call the guard on us?” Hetfield asks in astonishment.
The Speaker of the House may be immoral, and logically inconsistent, but she was no dummy. Pelosi saw, very clearly, that she was enmeshed in a self-contradiction. On the one hand, she favored the minimum wage law. On the other hand, she employed young people at a zero wage. It doesn’t get much more hypocritical than that.
Strictly speaking, if there is a minimum wage law, no matter how low it is pegged, internships— unpaid ones that is—would fall below that level and thus be illegal. For suppose this enactment mandated that compensation be at least $.25 per hour. (In actual point of fact, that was the amount of hourly pay that the law required when first enacted in 1936—although prices were a bit lower in those days).
But the zero wage “paid” to the unpaid intern is below even that. So, if you favor the legalization of (unpaid) internships, and most people do, you logically must oppose minimum wage laws, all of them, at whatever level they are pegged at. (Take that Nancy!)
As for paid internships, there really is no such thing. They are a contradiction in terms, akin to a square circle. They are merely an attempt to free ride on the popularity of real internships, unpaid ones, which are incompatible with mandated minimum wages.
This article, Why Nancy Pelosi Once Cut Off an Interview After She Was Asked about Unpaid Interns in Her Office, was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission. Please support their mission.