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Elected officials often look to unpaid interns for help

They say there's value on both sides

Published: Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014 1:15 a.m. CST

In the fall of 2006, years before Tom Demmer was elected to the 90th District seat in the Illinois House of Representatives, he was an intern in the office of the vice president of the United States.

Like many high school or college interns working then and today in legislative offices, in Illinois or in the nation’s capital, Demmer, R-Dixon, was unpaid, but he said he still received a lot.

“It was an incredibly valuable experience, I absolutely believe,” he said. “It was a huge amount of work. It would be regular 12-plus-hour days. I didn’t get a chance for sightseeing out there. But it was rewarding.”

Most Sauk Valley legislators, at the state and federal level, offer unpaid internships. The elected officials say the students gain valuable education and get a close look at how government works.

At his district office in Rochelle, Demmer said he’s had about 15 interns, mainly from Northern Illinois University or Rochelle. They work fewer hours – usually about 3 hours a week – than he did in Washington.

Their duties include typical intern work, he said, such as answering phones and opening and sorting mail. Sometimes, they help Demmer’s staff with constituents who call and are having problems with state agencies.

While Demmer said some legislators have taken advantage of interns, the issue of whether to pay them is complicated.

“I guess you have to look at the context of what an internship offers,” he said. “What are the requirements? How many hours and what level of experience will they get? I was more than happy to volunteer at the White House. ... It was just a no-brainer.”

Work for credit or pay

State Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, never worked as an intern. He married at a young age and needed to work paying jobs.

His district office and his office in Springfield use unpaid interns throughout the year. While many of the interns are college students and can work for college credit, others can’t.

And Jacobs pays $10 an hour to interns who don’t get college credit, he said, and tries to help with gasoline money.

His interns have no set hours, he said, and his office makes an effort to work around their school schedules. Their duties usually include assisting legislative aides, and there are other occasional projects.

“Sometimes, there are issues I’m curious about that the staff doesn’t have time to look into,” Jacobs said. “At the capitol, it’s a lot more fun. They get to get on the grounds and be involved in the process.”

Rep. Mike Smiddy, D-Hillsdale, represents the state’s 71st District, which includes part of Whiteside County. In the spring of 1992, he was an unpaid intern for then-Congressman Lane Evans.

Smiddy’s office uses interns for state legislative work and campaign work. The state interns are unpaid, with many receiving college credit, he said, and the campaign interns are paid $10 an hour.

The duties vary, but his office tries to give interns as much experience as possible to learn about legislative or political workings, he said.

State Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, doesn’t use interns in Springfield or at the district office.

Colin Milligan, a spokesman for Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-East Moline, said interns in the congresswoman’s district and Washington offices are not paid.

“As someone who gained valuable experience through internships herself, Congresswoman Bustos is honored to offer educational internships each semester to young people from Illinois who are interested in serving constituents and learning more about public policy and the legislative process,” the aide said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Channahon, who represents the 16th District, which includes Lee, Ogle and Bureau counties, also offers unpaid internships.

An inside look

Demmer said his experience as an intern reinforced his interest in politics and government. It gave him an inside look at the way issues and legislation are handled, he said, and instilled the importance of attention to details.

Smiddy said he’s looking to expand the role of interns in his office and wants to start programs with community colleges. He also wants to work with political science and civics classes at district high schools.

Although Jacobs was never an intern himself, he said he likes having young people around his office because they’re often less jaded. And if he can help them use their time in his office as a stepping stone, then it’s worth it.

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