Tom Perez Stumbles on Pledge to Eliminate Unpaid Internships at the DNC

Tom Perez on Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th Anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday" March from Selma to Montgomery (CNN).

While running for Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Tom Perez pledged to eliminate unpaid internships at DNC.

“Millennials need more than just a seat at the table, they need a voice in every part of the conversation at the DNC,” tweeted Perez during a DNC chairman’s debate in February. “And creating a paid internship program is a part of my plan to bring in more millennials.”  

However, it’s been nearly four months since Tom Perez became chairman, and now the DNC— under Perez’s watch—is employing another set of unpaid summer interns and is currently accepting applications for unpaid internships for the fall.

According to the DNC’s website, unpaid interns are required to work 40 hours per week, leaving little time for interns to work part-time jobs to pay their bills.

It’s unclear if the internships meet the U.S. Department of Labor criteria that determine whether the internships financially benefit the employer. The DOL’s six point test is intended to clarify whether unpaid or educational arrangements are truly beneficial to the intern, and whether or not interns must be paid at least a minimum wage.

When pressed by Payday Report to explain why they had yet to implement Perez’s pledge, the DNC said that they are still exploring ways to find the means to pay them.

“As Tom often stated while he was running for Chair, unpaid internships limit the diversity of our talent pipeline, the opportunities available to young Democrats, and the future of our party as a whole,”  wrote DNC spokesperson Michael Tyler in a statement to Payday. “The current intern program was started before the current leadership was in place, but as we build our team, we’re exploring every possible means for paid internships.”

The DNC’s failure to start paying its interns has angered even those who worked closely with Perez during his tenure as Secretary of Labor under President Barack Obama.

“What are the top salaries at the DNC? Could Tom Perez or his top lieutenants afford to shave $10 an hour from their own salaries to pay interns? Could its millionaire consultants be taxed a little to make sure interns get paid the minimum wage?” asks Ross Eisenbrey, a senior fellow at the union-funded Economic Policy Institute. “A party that claims to want a higher minimum wage should pay it to every employeeeven those it calls interns.”

The continued efforts of the DNC to recruit unpaid interns underscores a heated debate within the DNC on how much the party pays its top consultants. Currently, the DNC does not publicly release its budget, and not even the elected Democratic National Committee members are allowed to see it.

“If the DNC members and the executives are fundraising for the party, they should know where that money is going and know that it’s being allocated properly,” says former DNC member Nomiki Konst, who was picked by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to sit on the DNC’s Unity and Reform Commission, which aims to mend divisions between Sanders and Clinton supporters.

Konst has helped lead an effort to get the DNC to publish its budget and allow participatory budgeting from its 447 elected Democratic National Committee members.  

The DNC did not respond directly about whether or not Perez supports making the budget of the DNC transparent.

“We’re in the middle of restructuring the DNC, and that includes a top-to-bottom review of all of our spending and finances,” says DNC spokesperson Michael Tyler.

If Perez resists calls to make the budget public, it would be a role reversal for the former Secretary of Labor. As Secretary of Labor, Perez enforced the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, which requires both unions and employers to file annual reports online detailing their expenditures on union activity.

“There is really no excuse for the budget not to be transparent to executive membersno excuse unless they are hiding something,” says Konst. “They have a duty to those that run for office and those that donate to the party.”  

Mike Elk is a member of the Washington-Baltimore NewsGuild and is the senior labor reporter at Payday Report. He previously served as senior labor reporter at POLITICO and has written for the New York Times. He also writes for The Guardian.

Follow him on Twitter @MikeElk or email him: [email protected]

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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