Carlos Mark Vera, who has worked on Capitol Hill as an unpaid intern, is spearheading a group to get interns paid. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Carlos Mark Vera looked nervous. It was mid-November in a private room upstairs at the Monocle, the longtime haunt of Capitol Hill's gentry, where signed photos of aged congressmen line the walls like movie-star headshots in a Hollywood dry cleaner. Their faded stares and the restaurant's austere setting were doing little to calm Vera before his guests had arrived.

“Everything is late,” he said in his clipped, speedy cadence as he glanced at the clock. He watched as the tiny crew he’d gathered hung banners and rearranged tables to maximize mingling. Fifteen minutes to go.

I asked if this was his organization’s first gala. “It’s not a gala,” Vera replied, eyes widening. That’s what my invitation called it, but I understood his desire to manage expectations. Vera, in his trendy, tieless maroon suit, took two sips of a gin-and-tonic and scanned the bustle of the room before scrambling off to attend to other matters. Ten minutes to go.

The occasion was the two-year anniversary fundraising gala — sorry, reception — for Pay Our Interns, a nonprofit Vera founded in October 2016 with the goal of getting Washington organizations to, well, pay their interns. Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) would be arriving soon to be honored for their support. The night — paid for by Univision, the tech firm Phone2Action and social consulting firm Impactual — was about celebrating all that Pay Our Interns had, against all odds, helped to accomplish.

Unpaid internships create one of those vicious cycles of the modern economy. Many entry-level jobs today require some previous experience (ironically), and often the only way to get that is through an internship. If it doesn’t pay — and 43 percent of internships at for-profit companies do not, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers — then the only people who can afford to take them are those with means. That leaves underprivileged students out of the internship pipeline, and starkly disadvantaged when it comes to job hunting.

Vera knows this all too well. Born in Colombia, he grew up in California in a low-income family. In January 2012, while attending American University for undergrad on scholarship, he landed an internship in the office of then-Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.). It was unpaid, forcing a 17-year-old Vera to juggle 28 hours a week on the Hill with a part-time university job for cash, plus classes and homework. “I was basically fighting not to fall asleep,” he recalls.

Things weren’t better at the White House, where Vera got another unpaid internship in September 2014. He noticed one big difference, though: “Unlike the Hill ... you had to wear a suit every day. And I only had one suit.” His family pitched in for a new one from J.C. Penney. “But that’s still only two suits,” Vera told me. “There was a lot of repeating.”

Around this time, he began organizing on behalf of AU’s cooks and cleaners, whom he had befriended over the years. They claimed the third-party company that employed them mistreated them. In a nod to AU’s “Wonk” ad campaign (“Employed Wonk,” “Political Wonk,” etc.), Vera called his protest “Exploited Wonk.” In May 2016, he and his allies, including students, alumni and faculty members, succeeded in establishing a full-ride scholarship for the children of those workers. “That for me was like: Wow, I really can make meaningful change in the community that I’m in,” he says.

That June, Vera became a full-time employee at the public relations firm Megaphone Strategies. But he never forgot the side gigs, the sleepless nights, the dearth of suits and the untold numbers of smart kids who would never get that first toehold in Washington because they couldn’t afford to work for free. When his mentee, an unpaid Hill intern, told him he had to skip buying groceries for a week so he could send his clothes to be dry-cleaned, Vera says, “At that point I was like: This is bulls---.”

So Vera quit his job and used his savings to create Pay Our Interns. Guillermo Creamer Jr., who also attended AU, became co-founder and volunteer chief of staff. He, too, had been an unpaid House intern, an experience that he says came with “a lot of financial and emotional hardship.” “It felt like I was worthless,” says Creamer. “I was working unpaid, and some managers and supervisors didn’t appreciate it enough. ... I have a younger sister, and I never wanted her to feel that way.”

To get Congress to pay its interns in time for the 2020 class, Vera and Creamer compiled a report titled “Experience Doesn’t Pay the Bills,” showing which offices paid interns and which did not. But before they released it to the media, they brought their data to lawmakers, and, Vera says, several quickly pledged to begin paying. The findings, released in June 2017, ultimately showed only 26 offices out of 435 in the House offered paid internships. In the Senate, 43 out of 100 did.

Meanwhile, Vera was making ends meet as a server at a Woodley Park restaurant at night, then going to Starbucks when it opened in the morning to work on Pay Our Interns. "There were plenty of times where we looked at each other and said, 'I don't know how much longer this is going to work,' " says Creamer. "The press and the social media was there, but the money wasn't. And we had several [congressional] offices who told us that our efforts are noble, but it's not gonna happen."

Then in April, Vera got a tip that the operations budget for Senate offices was set to increase by $50 million. “So why don’t we ask them to set aside a little of that to pay interns?” he said.

Pay Our Interns began a grass-roots campaign to get constituents to call their Congress members about the issue, and dropped off letters at each office that had unpaid interns. Schatz soon introduced an amendment with Van Hollen and fellow senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) to set aside $5 million of the new funds for intern pay. It passed on June 14. In September, the House of Representatives followed suit, setting aside $8.8 million for intern pay. “It’s been a whirlwind,” Vera notes.

So what’s left to accomplish? Plenty, he says. First off, that money won’t cover every congressional intern. Many may end up earning far below a living wage. Second, he cites a slew of D.C. workplaces, from party organizations to think tanks and nonprofits, that still need persuading to pay their interns, including do-gooder groups that profess to want to change the world for the better. I reached out to several for comment. The Public Interest Network said in an email: “To our knowledge, nonprofits in general don’t pay interns,” but they do offer college credit for internships, and pay recent college grads to be organizers. Human Rights Watch said that it offered paid and unpaid internships, but not consistently across jurisdictions, and that it was working to find a way to remedy that.

These days, Vera is not waiting tables. Pay Our Interns subsists on donations and an Open Society Foundations grant. At the November reception, Vera’s nerves had cooled as he took to the podium. The interns in the crowd met his words with finger snaps and applause. When it came to the overworked and underpaid, Vera knew his audience.

Michael J. Gaynor is a writer in Washington.