Student interns eagerly enter San Jose City Hall year-round with dreams of launching their political careers, but only some leave with a paycheck.
On the 18th floor of city hall, there are currently 66 student interns who work for councilmembers or the mayor—and about 60% are paid for their time. Just seven interns receive hourly pay between $17-20 per hour, 29 are given a stipend for monthslong work, four are employed through a city-run career development program and the remaining 27 are working unpaid.
Dev Davis, Pam Foley and David Cohen are the only councilmembers to exclusively pay their interns an hourly wage or a stipend. Councilmembers Peter Ortiz, Domingo Candelas and Arjun Batra have a mixture of paid and unpaid interns on staff. Mayor Matt Mahan provides a $1,000-$2,000 stipend per semester—roughly three months—depending on the number of hours worked. Councilmembers Sergio Jimenez, Omar Torres and Bien Doan do not pay their interns.
For Foley, it is a matter of principle. If someone is going to work, they should be paid. She said interns offer fresh perspectives and help with a myriad of tasks.
“Frankly, I’m surprised that everybody doesn’t pay their interns, particularly with our concerns about living wages and the high cost of living here,” Foley told San José Spotlight. “This is a job for them. It could be a direction for their career as well. For them to take time out of their day when they could be working, earning a salary, to volunteer their time, for me doesn’t seem right.”
She said unpaid internships can be a barrier too, especially for those who need to work to support themselves or their family.
But in California, unpaid internships are legal as long as the intern is the primary beneficiary of the internship, among other requirements. Because students can gain valuable work experience through an internship before they graduate, state law allows students to “buy” this experience with their labor.
Interns are typically paid out of a councilmember’s office budget. Each councilmember receives close to $1 million per fiscal year, depending on how much money was unspent from years prior. The mayor’s office has a larger annual budget of $4.8 million. Typically, more than 80% of all the budgets go toward full-time staff salaries and benefits, according to recent city documents.
Mahan said he brings on as many interns as possible because he hopes it will show them that change within a community is possible through collaboration. He also said students are “creative, outside the box thinkers,” that help inform the work being done in his office to tackle San Jose’s top issues. Of his 21 interns, only one is unpaid. According to his office, the student started late and the budget for internships was already allocated.
“Igniting a passion for public service is one of the greatest things we as a society can do to push for a better future,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “But beyond giving young people opportunities to learn, grow and make change, I have found our student interns to be some of the most hard-working, helpful and driven folks I’ve worked with.”
Ryan Milligan worked for one year starting in summer 2021 as an unpaid intern for Mahan’s mayoral campaign. He said the work experience was invaluable because he developed a mentorship relationship with Mahan and got deep exposure to how a local election operates. He said it left him impassioned to study politics at Boston College. Compensation, he said, would’ve just been an extra benefit.
“I didn’t really mind. I was in high school and it was a fun experience for me to get some hands-on work,” Milligan told San José Spotlight. “I definitely wouldn’t have traded the experience.”
He noted the student interns he worked with didn’t complain about pay either because they sought the work experience more than the money.
Candelas said if he could pay all his interns, or pay them more he would, but he is constrained by the budget.
The freshman councilmember has one intern who is paid $500 per month, two others that are paid through San Jose Works—a city-run program that provides career development training to high schoolers—and five who are unpaid. Candelas said his political passions were partly sparked by his internship for former Mayor Sam Liccardo when he was a councilmember in 2010, which is why he tries to take on as many students as possible.
“Internships give them real-life experience of working for an office and it gives you a good foundation for whether you want to be in public service or not,” Candelas told San José Spotlight. “I wish I could pay more if I’m honest. Unfortunately, I can’t, but this is still a valuable experience.”
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.