• $15? Students at the UW School of Social work say they're too often working for $0.

Now that the $15 an hour movement has forced the passage of a higher minimum wage, City Council Member Kshama Sawant is turning her attention to another facet of worsening economic inequality: the rise of unpaid internships. On Thursday evening at a University of Washington graduation ceremony, she seized the opportunity to denounce "practicums"—essentially unpaid internships that are required for graduation—at the School of Social Work.

"When she got to that part about organizing at the school of social work, everybody cheered and clapped," Ivan Cuevas, a masters social work student who just graduated, told me by phone. "There were a lot of people who thought that it wasn’t going to happen."

Kshama Sawant gives the keynote address at the UW School of Social Work graduation.
  • Clay Showalter
  • Kshama Sawant gives the keynote address at the UW School of Social Work graduation.

In her keynote address, Sawant said Social Workers Stand Up, a group of students campaigning against unpaid internships, "have taken responsibility to not only fight for institutional change in broader society, but also here at UW...I hope you are inspired by the work of your peers, and I urge all of you"—she turned towards the deans of the school at this point—"especially the faculty, advisors and administration, to join me in supporting these students who are actively fighting for justice."

"I think that freaked ‘em out a little more," said Cuevas.

The students say the internships don't conform with federal labor standards, which mandate that unpaid interns must not act as substitutes for paid employees and that their presence does not immediately benefit the employer. In other words, they're very often illegal. The internships—what social workers call "practicums"—are a graduation requirement where social work students spend unpaid hundreds of hours at nonprofit social work agencies. Typical assignments are "case worker" or "mental health worker." Not easy work.

"There were some cases where people were really happy with their internships, but in the majority of cases there was a total lack of oversight," Cuevas explains. Practicums have been standard in the field of social work for decades. When students met with school officials in the spring, according to Cuevas, the officials said, "We don't see a way for people to engage in the internships and also meet labor standards."

"When we left, we were pretty disgusted," Cuevas told me. "We were like, 'All you have to do is pay them!'"

Emiko Tajima, the associate dean at the school, says she's sympathetic to students facing outrageous levels of debt. Tuition at the School of Social Work hovers at about $15,000 annually. And she said the school is seeking a federal grant that would provide $10,000 stipends to about 99 students (there are at least three times that number engaged in practicums each year) for about 750 hours of their internship.

That works out to about $13 per hour. But, Tajima said, "We don't want to have this considered as labor, and then this assumption, that you can combine learning with labor." What she means is that practicums are meant to be unpaid instances of education in the field, not jobs. In April, she sent a memo to all the agencies where students intern—which themselves are usually financially strapped, she told me—listing and delineating the Department of Labor standards. "As you may have heard," she wrote, "recent court decisions regarding unpaid internships have raised the question of whether social work practicum placements are within the guidelines of the US Department of Labor."

Still, the students want policy changes. For six months, they've tried to collaborate with the administration on practicum reform, their ad-hoc organization, Social Workers Stand Up, said in a statement issued Tuesday. "Our efforts and requests have been rejected, denied and steamrolled," the students said. They point out that UW's School of Social Work, which is known as a top school, is missing an opportunity to "spearhead reform."

And they point to the school's own mission statement, which says, "We commit ourselves to promoting social and economic justice for poor and oppressed populations and enhancing the quality of life for all.” Cuevas says their campaign's next steps are to take their fight to the UW administration itself, and build a wider coalition with other students facing exploitative unpaid internships.

"In addition to the burden of student debt and low-wage jobs faced by most young people today," Sawant told me this morning, "social work students are having to fight the still mostly invisible abomination of unpaid internships...They have drawn attention to their own poverty wages, and have said that they are fed up with not getting the respect they deserve—respect that begins with a living wage."

But the associate dean downplayed the impact of Sawant's remarks at the keynote. "We're trying to address social justice," Tajima said, "so we're not surprised that someone would raise that. We share their concerns—it's just the mechanism to do that, I don't think, is to consider what they're doing labor."

Good luck with that, School of Social Work!