With Income Equality In The Spotlight, 2020 Campaigns Move Toward Paid Internships

Aug 27, 2019

Roxanne Barnes, a Bernie Sanders intern, sells t-shirts at a campaign event in Littleton. Sanders pays interns $15 an hour.
Credit Jordyn Haime

Rolando Cantú is originally from Texas, and is now a junior at American University in Washington, D.C. But I caught up with him a few weeks ago in Berlin, New Hampshire, where he was helping set up tables and chairs in a packed catering hall, before Sen. Bernie Sanders was scheduled to speak. 


  Cantu is spending his summer in New Hampshire, working as an intern on Sanders’ presidential campaign. What made it possible, he said, is the $15 an hour wage that came with the job.

“For me personally, I purposefully tried to target the internships that were paid. Just because for myself, I’m a low-income student, my family is middle to low income, so I really cannot afford to do an unpaid internship,” Cantú said.

As the New Hampshire presidential primary heats up, situations like Cantú’s are becoming increasingly common.

Scroll down to see a chart comparing the intern pay policies of candidate campaigns

This election cycle, more Democratic candidates than ever have pledged to pay interns. At least nine candidates have said that they offer paid internship or fellowship programs, including Joe Biden, Cory Booker, and Elizabeth Warren. It can be a significant expense, especially for large campaigns that rely on small armies of interns to help with data entry, event organizing,phone banking and door-knocking.

The shift to more paid work comes during a campaign in which issues like economic inequality and raising the minimum wage are key issues.

Christopher Galdieri, a political analyst and professor at Saint Anselm College, says that’s not a coincidence.

“Doing that is not just a way of attracting talented people to work on your campaign, but it’s a signal to groups that care about raising the minimum wage, it’s a signal to groups that care about, conditions for workers and that sort of thing,” Galdieri said.

And it is a change from past campaigns, when working long, unpaid hours was seen as a rite of passage. Karen Hicks, who now works for Civix Strategy Group in Concord, has worked on New Hampshire campaigns for years, including Howard Dean’s in 2003.

She says compensating interns is a step in the right direction, but it’s also having an impact on the culture of the first-in-the-nation primary.

“I fear that some or it has become overly professionalized, and you know, those campaigns tend to be a little less fun, a little less dynamic,” she said, “And so, when we create a political system where people want to participate and want to take an active role in politics, those are the best campaigns in my mind.”

While pay practices are changing, many campaigns still rely on unpaid intern work.

And at least three candidates – Biden, Booker and Warren – are offering what they are calling “unpaid fellowships” in addition to paid opportunities.

Booker’s New Hampshire campaign says that those programs are distinct. Unpaid fellows are essentially doing the same work as interns, but they have the option of earning academic credit for it.

The Warren campaign has recently been criticized for its own volunteer fellowship program. According to reports, students who applied called it a “scam,” and the campaign is now facing a legal complaint related to the issue, filed by a Sanders supporter.

The Warren campaign would not give an interview on the issue, but said in a statement that many fellows get outside financial assistance, and have less of a time commitment than paid interns.

The move to paid internships is happening beyond the campaign trail, too. Guillermo Creamer, co-founder of the DC-based advocacy group Pay Our Interns, says paid internships are creating broader changes in workplace culture.

“I think we’re doing it for the right reasons,” he said. “We understand the importance of paying interns, and we understand that when you don’t pay your interns, some people can miss out on these opportunities.”

As primary season continues to ramp up through the fall, more interns, paid or not, will continue to flood the state.

How do pay policies stack up? (Click here if you are having trouble viewing this chart on your mobile device.)