Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is changing business as usual on Capitol Hill.
On Tuesday, the incoming New York congresswoman's chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, told Washington Post reporter Jeff Stein she plans to pay her interns "at least" $15 an hour, a move Ocasio-Cortez says is part of her effort to "walk the walk."
"Very few members of Congress actually pay their interns," Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter. "We will be one of them."
Indeed, according to a 2017 report from the bipartisan nonprofit Pay Our Interns, there are very few congressional offices that employ paid interns, particularly in the House, where a meager 8 percent of Republican representatives pay their interns and an even smaller 3.6 percent of Democratic representatives do the same. In the Senate, those numbers are significantly higher: Fifty-one percent of Republicans offer paid internships, as well as 31 percent of Democrats.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer recently came under fire for being among those looking to hire unpaid interns, posting a job listing on Monday soliciting applications for an a full-time intern willing to work without pay. Pay Our Interns pointed out that Schumer started out on the Hill as an intern himself—at the time, nearly four decades ago, he reportedly made what today would be $1,800 a month.
After Ocasio-Cortez announced she'd be paying her interns $15 an hour, a spokesman for Schumer told the New York Post the job listing had been "made in error," and that his office would be offering a stipend to "eligible interns" starting in January.
"The congresswoman-elect is shedding light on an issue we’ve been so passionate about for the last two years," Guillermo Creamer Jr., the deputy director and cofounder of Pay Our Interns, tells Broadly. "Her profile has really allowed the conversation to spark again. I think that’s one of the things we’re most happy about with all of this."
Creamer Jr. says the only other member of Congress to pay their interns as much as $15 an hour is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
Ocasio-Cortez took up the issue of pay disparity on the Hill earlier this week, when she said she got to talking to bartenders, managers, and servers at a local DC "dive spot" she went to for a late-night bite. Several of them, she said, currently worked in Senate and House offices, where they didn't make enough to support themselves without a second job.
She called it a "disgrace" that Congress didn't pay its staff "an actual DC living wage," and suggested Congress raise its Members' Representational Allowances, or MRA, in order to do so.
"It is unjust for Congress to budget a living wage for ourselves, yet rely on unpaid interns and underpaid overworked staff just [because] Republicans want to make a statement about 'fiscal responsibility,'" Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Monday. "If that's the case, they can cut down on staff to pay them well. Or raise the MRA."
In September, the House approved a spending bill that set aside $14 million for intern pay alone. It's Creamer Jr.'s hope that House representatives like Ocasio-Cortez use more of it to do right by their intern staff and, in turn, make the positions more accessible to a more diverse group of young people.
"It definitely helps [Ocasio-Cortez] provide internships to those who couldn't originally afford to take on an internship," Creamer Jr. says. "I think the congresswoman-elect really wants to bring on individuals from her own constituency, and she realizes the need those individuals might have.
"It is unusual to have a member of congress pay an intern at least $15, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible," he continues. "She’s paving the way so others can follow suit."