Should We Tolerate Being Underpaid and Underappreciated?

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Site Contributor. Motivated to do most things by food.

In the summer before graduate school, I moved to Northern Virginia and landed an internship with a major pro-choice organization. I could not have been more thrilled, and they treated their interns really well in terms of training, providing lunches weekly, and being generally accessible for questions and support.

The problem, however, was the pay. It was minimum wage, and honestly I was grateful to be getting paid at all. However, the cost of commuting into the city 5 days per week was more every month than I was making. I had a very supportive partner who was making enough to cover all of our living expenses and my transportation, leaving me to pay a portion of our groceries each month. This is not only an example of how lucky and privileged I was/am but also was an emotional struggle for me to let go and try not to feel guilty every day that I was not contributing financially exactly half of what we needed.

The lack of financial support offered to interns, especially in the nonprofit world, grows ever more glaring. We know that women and people of color are paid less in general, but the organizations that are fighting for equal rights for all are just as responsible as corporate America. They know better. They need to do better.

The story goes something like this: intern gets hired at amazing nonprofit. Intern either gets no payment or is paid so little that it does not constitute a living wage, and intern needs to rely on family (in privileged situations) or another job (or more than one) to cover basic needs. Then intern may graduate from college/graduate school and apply to work in said nonprofit for an actual salary. They put in great work and could continue to grow their own professional career as well as continue to foster relationships within the position. The nonprofit offers a salary that is laughable, and the former intern cannot take the position. The agency continues to hire interns to do the work of one or even more full time employees at a fraction of the cost and the cycle presses on.

This is not exclusive to nonprofit agencies. Institutions of higher education are hiring adjunct professors more and more often, meaning that they can pay them far less per class than a full professor. Like hiring part-time workers to piece meal full time positions, colleges and universities get away with paying less to adjuncts and not offering the same benefits. Adjunct faculty is expected to have office hours, spend a great deal of time outside of the classroom planning lessons and grading, and the return for all their work is very little. Recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Myra Green speaks about the emotional care-work that comes with being employed in higher education which is another drain on the emotional and physical resources of employees. She states “A small group of academics – primarily women – end up taking on this kind of care-work at colleges and universities…The problem is: Listening, empathizing, problem solving, and resource finding take an enormous amount of time and energy.”

It goes without saying that fields that are primarily populated with women – social work and teaching to name a few – make less in general than other positions. But even salaried positions have become less advantageous in our more-more-more work society. Organizations tend to take extreme advantage of salaried workers because they know that if the worker stays after hours, it is only to the benefit of the organization. They do not have to pay more, there’s no overtime, and the organization is getting free labor. In most places, the idea of a work-life balance is nonexistent. If you stand up and leave on time with any consistency, it is suggested that you are not a “team player” and individuals may become resentful that you are leaving when they feel they need to stay. Other workers may be pressured to “pick up the slack” if another person consistently leaves on time.

The culture is pervasive. Recently I heard about an intern that advocated for herself to her boss, indicating that she felt overloaded with her busy days. The response? “I’m here every night until at least 2 hours after the day ends. You just need to deal with it.” The message here is one that’s repeated in many areas of employment: we are all doing more than we are paid to and that’s just how it is. Suck it up and stop complaining.

I believe in self-care. I’m one of those people who talks about it constantly, to an irritating level. I do a pretty decent job with it at work and a less-than-decent job with it at home but I am always trying. Lately, however, the problem feels immovable. As I attempt to advocate for co-workers and interns, I’m met with an astounding amount of push back that on some days might be strong enough to knock me over. We need to value labor with financial compensation but also with the respect due to someone who is trying to have a life outside of work, who refuses to stay late without being compensated for it, who does so much care-taking behind the scenes without ever being recognized for it. We can only get better from there.