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Let's Talk About Unpaid Internships at City Hall 

Wednesday, Sep 23 2015
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San Francisco is a bleeding-heart, bleeding edge kind of town — except when it comes to City Hall internships. That's where tight-fisted economics trump the better angels of the city's progressive nature. Despite a sprawling $9 billion city budget, the Board of Supervisors doesn't pay its interns. And in one of the richest cities in America, some think that's a problem.

Each supervisor has four to 10 interns (Supervisor Wiener has summer interns but no yearlong program), ranging from high school juniors and seniors to wonkish grad students. The interns perform basic office tasks such as answering phones and greeting visitors, but they're also relied on for "a mix of constituent and policy work," says Supervisor Jane Kim. Like interns anywhere, those at City Hall perform the tedious, in-the-weeds labor that keeps bureaucracy humming.

The U.S. Department of Labor allows unpaid internships if certain criteria are met. This includes "interns must receive training from your company, even if it somewhat impedes the work of your organization," and "interns' training must primarily benefit them, not the company." Public sector internships like those at City Hall, however, are in a legal gray zone.

Maurice Pianko, founder of Intern Justice, a law firm representing interns who have been illegally denied wages, says, "From a legal perspective, [not paying interns at City Hall] is probably fine. From an ethical perspective, it's saying a person's time and effort is worth zero. Is this the message we want to be sending?"

The language of the supervisors' message isn't clear. This month, District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang tweeted that her office was "hiring" interns, but the application thanked candidates for their interest in "volunteering." Although the application asked whether candidates would receive school credit, there were no details about payment. When a concerned citizen upbraided Tang on Twitter — "shame on you for not paying interns" — she neither responded nor clarified.

To be fair, some high school interns at City Hall earn minimum wage through a program called San Francisco YouthWorks, which connects students to mentors in local government. Brian Mertens, YouthWorks' employment coordinator, says, "It's important for young people to get paid. We want to make sure their labor is valued." During the last intern cycle this summer, YouthWorks placed eight students with the Board of Supervisors.

But high school interns are the only ones making money.

Some interns get college credit in lieu of a paycheck. But at least one City Hall intern is working totally gratis. Jeff Cretan, a legislative aide in Supervisor Wiener's office, alluded to a "college student who is in [our office] but not getting credit" or payment. SF Weekly spoke with several interns who confirmed they're not getting paid either.

What do such volunteers hope to earn from the experience besides résumé fodder? When SF Weekly posed that question to Cretan, he laughed and replied, "That's a strange question."

Maybe City Hall considers a job well done its own reward.

About The Author

Jack Morse

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