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Can't afford an internship? Try asking for donations

By Dugald McConnell and Erin McPike, CNN
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Tue August 13, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • One intern turns to web to raise money to cover housing, food costs
  • Congress only area of government allowed to have unpaid interns
  • But private employers can offer similar work without pay
  • Value of internships on a resume is something students are keenly aware of

Washington (CNN) -- Internships can be crucial career-builders. But what if you can't afford to work for free all summer?

Jessica Padron of Nevada may have found the solution.

After securing a prestigious unpaid student internship in the office of Senate leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, she has begun a crowdfunding appeal online.

She is asking donors to help pay for her housing, transportation, and food, which she estimates will cost her $6,500 over the four months in the capital.

"If I don't reach my goal," she writes in her appeal, "I will be forced to relinquish this opportunity and miss out on this once in a lifetime chance."

As of Tuesday, online donors had already chipped in enough for half of her costs.

Some observers say there is some irony here, given that plenty of lawmakers are pushing to raise the minimum wage, yet don't pay a cent to some of their hardest workers.

"Of everybody in the federal government, only Congress is allowed to use unpaid interns," says Eric Glatt, a former unpaid intern who is now an activist with the Fair Pay Campaign. "They have explicitly written an exemption for themselves into the law."

And it's not just Congress.

Private employers in Washington and across the country can offer internships without pay. (Disclosure: CNN pays its interns.)

Glatt warns that because only affluent students can afford to work for free, many students will be denied a crucial career experience.

"It is excluding the vast majority of people who cannot afford to work for free, or have their parents afford for their children to work for free," he said. "It also promotes inequality."

Glatt worked for free as an intern on the movie "Black Swan," but later successfully sued the movie studio, claiming that it was not fair that he was paid nothing.

"Employers think that if they slap the word intern on a job then they don't have to pay for it," he said. "Why do people think they can get away with this?"

But at a time of elevated unemployment, and government spending cuts, it may be difficult to persuade employers to pay minimum wage. And requiring all interns to be paid could have a downside, according to Michael Saltsman at the Employment Policies Institute.

"If we mandate that all internships must be paid, and then we have fewer internships, I don't think that helps anyone," he said.

Plus, he said, while internships often involve menial work, they also provide valuable experience and interesting work, and should not be jeopardized with new requirements.

"These are internships that dozens or hundreds of people would really pine for."

Indeed, one intern, with the publication "The Daily Caller," had a chance to ask a question at the daily White House briefing last month.

And several interns for news outlets became famous during the live coverage of the Supreme Court's biggest decisions in June, as they sprinted out of the court holding the papers that announced how the court ruled on the Civil Rights Act and same-sex marriage.

The spectacle was nicknamed "The Running of the Interns."

And the value of internships on a resume is something undergraduates are keenly aware of.

"All I hear from the career center at school is, internships are almost a necessary thing," says Emma Dolson, a student at Wake Forest, who scored a (paid) internship with a lobbying firm in D.C. "Your resume needs to have internships on it or you are way, way behind," she said.

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